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Cold case investigations need a break. All too often they break down.


Cold case investigations need a break. All too often they break down.

Mar 21, 2023 | 12:46 pm ET
By Janine L. Weisman
Cold case investigations need a break. All too often they break down.
No one has ever been arrested in connection with the homicide of 19-year-old Diane Drake, whose body was found on Easton's Beach in Newport on March 22, 1980. (Photo courtesy of Cathy Coffey)

The day in 2007 an FBI crime analyst called the Newport Police Department to ask about the unsolved murder of a 19-year-old college student nearly three decades earlier seemed full of promise. 

The crime analyst had recently been assigned the cold case of Diane Drake, a Roger Williams College (now University) sophomore whose body was found in shallow water at Easton’s Beach on the morning of March 22, 1980. 

But the FBI crime analyst apparently never got through to a detective that day. Or on any of her subsequent attempts to speak to a detective about the Drake case.

“No one ever returned her phone calls,” according to a heavily redacted memo dated Aug. 28, 2007, obtained through a public records request under the Freedom of Information Act.

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Details about the communication breakdown are limited. The FBI released only about 40 of the 537 pages comprising its Drake cold case file. So it’s unclear how many phone calls were made or if the FBI also tried emailing Newport detectives. 

The documents offer a glimpse into the challenges of fostering collaboration between different law enforcement agencies on cold case investigations. Competing priorities and limited resources can make it difficult for investigators to pursue cases that have languished for years. That’s especially true in Rhode Island, which has no dedicated cold case unit.

“It’s always about resources,” said David E. Lambert, assistant dean and director of the Justice System Training and Research Institute at Roger Williams University where a memorial scholarship in Drake’s name is awarded annually to a graduating senior majoring in administration of justice, also Drake’s field of study.

“Police departments are sort of at the end of the food chain in a lot of these things. They don’t necessarily have the resources to put investigators on. They’re trying to keep up with their current caseloads.”

Inertia surrounding cold cases led Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Neronha to ask for $349,960 to hire four additional staff for a cold case squad in his fiscal 2024 budget request to Gov. Dan McKee. But McKee rejected that request and maintained the same number of full-time positions in his recommended $42.3 million budget for the Office of the Attorney General for fiscal 2024.

Cold case investigations need a break. All too often they break down.
The Newport Police Department on Broadway in Newport. (Photo by Janine L. Weisman/Rhode Island Current)

Unknown number of cold cases in Rhode Island

The four positions Neronha proposed for his cold case unit — a special prosecutor, senior investigator, paralegal and victim services advocate — were among 20 full-time positions he wanted to add across his department. Neronha wrote his office is “historically understaffed and resourced” with half the number of full-time staff at the state attorney general in Delaware, a state with a similar population. Among other New England states, attorneys general in Maine, New Hampshire, and Connecticut have units dedicated to investigating cold cases. Massachusetts State Police coordinate with prosecutors in several district attorney jurisdictions to investigate unsolved cases. The Vermont State Police Major Crimes Unit oversees cold cases but has a special page on its website with an interactive map devoted to such cases.

Cold case investigations need a break. All too often they break down.
Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Neronha (Photo courtesy of Rhode Island Office of Attorney General)

How many cold cases are there in Rhode Island? No one is counting. The state lacks a system to track how many homicides and missing or unidentified person cases remain unsolved.

“We know it is in the hundreds,” Neronha wrote in a Sept. 30, 2022, cover letter to McKee with his fiscal 2024 request. “These unsolved cold cases leave victims seeking justice and closure for years and, in many cases, decades. They also present a threat to our public safety as perpetrators of some of our most violent crimes go unidentified and remain at large.”

One of the estimated hundreds of cold case victims was a quiet college student with strawberry blonde hair. She loved listening to James Taylor and Van Morrison. 

Cold case investigations need a break. All too often they break down.
Easton’s Beach in Newport looking east toward Middletown. (Photo by Janine L. Weisman/Rhode Island Current)

Changing the narrative

Drake was reported missing on Friday, March 21, 1980, after she did not show up for her afternoon work shift at a Photo Patio booth in the parking lot of what was then the Kmart plaza on East Main Road in Middletown. Drake did not feel well that morning and skipped class to stay home and rest at the Middletown cottage she shared with her roommate, who also attended Roger Williams.

Spring had officially started the day before, but heavy rain and gale force winds were in the forecast and tides would run a foot or two above normal. Drake’s beat up old Volkswagen Beetle usually didn’t start in wet weather so she had to rely on her roommate, family and friends when she needed a ride. 

Drake didn’t want to miss work because it was payday, but her roommate had left for school earlier. Police theorized Drake may have tried to walk or hitchhike the two miles to work when she was picked up by her killer. Her body was found on the beach shortly before 10:30 on Saturday morning by a state highway crew cleaning up after the overnight storm. She was missing her clothing. An autopsy determined that Drake had been strangled.

“I’m trying to change the narrative,” said Diane’s brother Bob Drake, now 68, of Portsmouth. “This is what bothers me. The police came out with stuff saying she was hitchhiking. She might have been hitchhiking, but I doubt it. What she was doing … to walk in a rainstorm to get to work because that’s what her responsibility was.”

His sister wanted to help people, he said. When he imagines what Diane’s life would have been like, he pictures her having a career as a social worker fighting to protect vulnerable kids.

In past years, Bob Drake and his sister Cathy Coffey, 70, of Tiverton, have gathered with other family and friends at Easton’s Beach on the anniversary of Diane’s death to remember her and celebrate her life. They plan to do so again on Tuesday, March 21.

“She was the peacekeeper,” Coffey said. “She was into Buddhism so she was very zen. She would just talk to people and get them to not be mad at each other. We had a huge family. We were always bickering.”

Diane Drake had been the seventh of nine children. Their father, retired U.S. Navy captain John Drake, who died in 2006, had served as the commander of the Naval Station on Aquidneck Island. For months after his daughter’s death, John Drake called Newport police late in the afternoon every day with the same question: Did they have any new leads?

Police departments are sort of at the end of the food chain in a lot of these things. They don’t necessarily have the resources to put investigators on. They’re trying to keep up with their current caseloads.

– David E. Lambert, assistant dean and director of the Justice System Training and Research Institute at Roger Williams University

FBI analysis took two years to complete

The FBI crime analyst “was to take a ’fresh look’ at the Drake case to determine whether or not previous analysts assigned to handle the matter had covered all analytical possibilities,” according to the memo in the small portion of the Drake file made public. A preliminary report had been prepared in 2005 after Newport police asked the FBI for analytical assistance, prompted by news media coverage of the 25th anniversary of the crime.

But the FBI reassigned the analyst in June 2007. Another analyst entered information about the Drake case into the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program (ViCAP), a database of U.S. homicides, sexual assaults and missing and unidentified persons that may connect cases with strong similarities to serial killers and rapists. The FBI then completed a ViCAP analysis report and submitted it to Newport police with a memo dated Sept. 19, 2007

The report was not included among the records the FBI released. What did it say about the possibility Drake was the victim of a serial killer?

“We’re going to let the documents speak for themselves and refer you to the Newport Police Department, which is leading that investigation,” Kristen Setera, spokeswoman for the FBI’s Boston field office, said in an email.

The Drake case is currently assigned to a detective who is on temporary leave and expected back in a few weeks, said Newport Acting Police Chief Ryan Duffy. Duffy replaced Police Chief Gary Silva, who retired Feb. 24 after 40 years with the city’s police force. Silva had declined a request for an interview with Rhode Island Current.

“The case is considered a cold case that we assess periodically or when potentially new applicable information is available,” Duffy said via email. “There has been investigative activity on the case over the past year.”

The Newport Police Department is accredited by the Rhode Island Police Accreditation Commission, a credential achieved by completing a process to meet professional standards and best practices for law enforcement agencies. The commission does not require its member agencies to have a formal policy involving cold case investigations unlike the advanced accreditation offered by the national Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA). The Rhode Island State Police and several municipal police departments — including Bristol, Cranston, Central Falls, Middletown and Warwick — have achieved this advanced accreditation, which includes a requirement to establish a written directive to conduct periodic reviews of cold cases. The written directive includes a definition of a cold case, a list of criteria for evaluating such cases and the steps for recording agency actions or activities. 

“The idea is that you want to have some procedure or policy that makes you review these cases from time to time to make sure there’s no new information that’s been uncovered,” said Paul MacMillan, the national commission’s Boston-based northeast regional program manager.

But policies aren’t effective without resources to back them up, said Lambert, the Roger Williams University assistant dean.

“Many police agencies have a lack of investigative resources to have a formal process for reviewing closed cases that lack additional solvability factors,” Lambert said. “Creating a policy without the requisite investigative resources is problematic in my view.”

Petition attempts to persuade governor

McKee’s rejection of additional funding for Neronha’s proposed cold case unit, first reported by Providence Business News, led to an online petition in support of the unit initiated by Lauren Lee Malloy, founder of Unsolved RI, an advocacy organization providing support for cold case victims, missing and unidentified persons and their families. 

“A cold case unit like this is absolutely necessary to the state,” said Malloy, whose petition had collected nearly 200 signatures as of Monday, March 20.

The petition is the second one initiated by Malloy, who gathered over 4,200 signatures in her successful quest to have Neronha’s office reopen the case of her mother Lori Lee Malloy’s suspicious death after the discovery of contradictions in the autopsy report. Lori Lee Malloy was found dead on the bathroom floor of her East Providence apartment on March 7, 1993. 

“These victims, they’ve been silenced, and I think this is our opportunity to be their voices,” Malloy said, “ … and to show local families that their loved ones matter and that their cases are a priority and show the offenders who are still walking around free that we don’t give up on justice.”

Now it’s up to Neronha to garner interest from lawmakers willing to add the $350,000 needed for a cold case unit back into the budget during the final throes of negotiations.  The Attorney General’s budget is scheduled for a hearing before the House Finance Committee on Thursday, March 30.

A statement released by Andrea Palagi, communications director for McKee’s office, acknowledges that Rhode Island State Police has members who work on cold cases in collaboration with the Office of the Attorney General.

“Members of the State Police Major Crimes unit are all assigned cold cases in addition to their normal caseload,” the statement reads. “We will continue to discuss this topic with the Attorney General’s Office for the next budget cycle.”

Cold case investigations need a break. All too often they break down.
The senior yearbook portrait of Diane Drake, a 1978 graduate of Portsmouth High School. (Photo courtesy of Cathy Coffey)

Bob Drake and Cathy Coffey will continue to hold onto memories of their sister and hope that someday her case will be solved. The weather forecast for Tuesday afternoon when they plan to meet at Easton’s Beach in Newport, looks sunny and clear. 

“It’s going to take somebody with a conscience that confesses or finally says what they know about it,” Coffey said. “For all we know, whoever did it has passed away. So many people who were witnesses and could have gone to court and helped her case have passed away.”

One of the last times he saw his sister, Bob Drake said, Diane was working on a puzzle at her rented cottage. The puzzle depicted a dove flying backwards in a ravine and a hawk with its talons extended coming over it. 

“She had finished the puzzle, all except for the very center piece,” he recalled. 

After her death, he was at the cottage packing up his sister’s belongings. He was lifting the boxspring of the bed in her bedroom when he looked down on the floor. The missing piece of the puzzle was on the floor between his feet.

“I still have the puzzle today,” Bob Drake said.