Back in the good old days -- about a year and a half ago -- the Kern County Sheriff's Department had enough money to pay a retired sheriff's homicide sergeant to focus on unsolved murder cases.
But the state and local budget crunch squeezed out the job Mike Moore was doing to match old cases with new DNA technology in hopes of finding a suspect.
Moore spent about five months resurrecting dormant files and finding evidence that might produce "a hit" in DNA data bases to point a finger at a suspect who got away with his crime.
In April 2008 when Sheriff Donny Youngblood announced the program, he said, "These cases are near and dear to us. If we can solve one or two , it will be worth it."
Moore did find two suspects in two different cases, although neither of the suspects have been charged. One was in the case that Youngblood highlighted in the 2008 news conference -- the stabbing death of an as-yet unidentified woman whose body was found July 15, 1980, in an almond orchard near Zerker Road and Merced Avenue.
"We know who did it," Youngblood said.
But the suspect, Wilson Chouest, is serving a life term for two rape convictions in Tulare County that occurred shortly after the Kern County woman was killed, Moore said. Chouest has admitted he may have had sex with the woman in Kern County, but denied killing her, Moore said. A second case is a shooting death of a man in southeast Bakersfield, but that case remains under investigation, so the details cannot be publicly released, Moore said.
Moore said he reviewed about 40 cases, but examined 15 of them "real hard," including reading the entire case file, calling previous investigators and opening up evidence bags. Tracking down witnesses who have scattered around the state or country is another lengthy chore in the process, he said.
"There are cases that I absolutely know can be solved" if there was someone dedicated to the time-consuming process of delving into them, Moore said.
Friends and relatives of homicide victims were grateful that someone was looking into the cases, Moore said. "They still hurt," he said. "They were glad that the victim was not forgotten."
To do the job right, it's critical that the investigator and the Kern County Crime Lab work together to process evidence, Moore said.
Now the sheriff's department reviews cold cases when time permits -- the approach the department took before Moore's job was established. That's also the way the Bakersfield Police Department treats cold cases. The advantage Moore had was that "he wasn't interrupted by the next robbery," Youngblood said.
Sheriff's homicide Sgt. Craig Rennie said his staff puts current homicides at the top of their priority lists followed by robberies, assaults, domestic violence and other crimes against persons. "We have a heavy caseload," he said.
But if someone comes in with a tip or new evidence in an unsolved homicide, investigators will check it out, Rennie said.
Youngblood said "it would be a very high priority" to bring back Moore or, if he's unavailable, another experienced homicide investigator. But that won't be possible under current budget restrictions.
Bakersfield Police homicide Sgt. Joe Aldana said all nine of his detectives review unsolved cases. Two of the detectives have specialized training in technical evidence for such cases, he said.
"We have identified suspects in some cases," he said. "We are continuing to investigate to make the cases airtight. They are all extremely important to us."
One DNA hit led to the arrest by police last year of Michael Charles Brown Jr., 34, in connection with the 2000 stabbing death of Ruby Lee Jackson-Meriweather, 39, in the 500 block of Grace Street.
The sheriff's most celebrated success on a DNA match led to the arrest in 2002 of Larry Kusuth Hazlett Jr., now 62, for the 1978 rape and strangulation murder of Tana Woolley, 20, a Rosamond beauty queen. Hazlett was convicted and sentenced to death in 2004.