Intro: According to a Scripps Howard News Service study of the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, only 60% of homicides in the state of Florida were solved between 1980 and 2008. That is almost 13,000 cases gone cold in Florida alone. Today, I am focusing on a man named Ryan Backmann, a Jacksonville resident who started a non-profit in 2015 called Project Cold Case, to combat the inattention to thousands of cold cases and raise awareness for the families suffering from intense grief and a lack of answers.
Ryan Backmann: My dad was working on a Saturday afternoon when someone shot him and took his wallet. So it can happen to anybody at any time, and I want to raise that awareness. I want people to know their surroundings and hopefully avoid those kinds of situations. But then I also want people that are kind of unaffected by homicide to realize that they have a stake in this because the bad guys are still out there which means their families are still vulnerable to this.
Katherine Hamilton: In October 2009, Ryan Backmann’s life took a turn when his father, Cliff Backmann, was suddenly murdered in a robbery. As time went on, his father’s case took a place on the shelf with 1,400 other of Jacksonville’s cold cases.
Backmann: While I was doing that and my dad’s case was getting colder and colder and getting further away from being solved. I started meeting other families that also had cold cases and kind of recognized the need for a group that was more specific to unsolved cases. And so in 2015, the opportunity came up that I was able to start Project Cold Case with that goal in mind to simply focus on unsolved cases.
Hamilton: His goal was to create a website where people could submit their loved one’s case or submit details about other cases. Overall, he believed that if cold cases were made public, detectives would have an easier time solving them.
Backmann: Every and we try to do it every week and do a new case and then we use social media to share those and just hope to generate new leads new tips and awareness for cases that hadn’t been looked at or thought about in years.
Hamilton: Project Cold Case is already inspiring others to do the same. One in Texas reached out to Project Cold Case for a copy of their database infrastructure, so that they can do the same thing in their community.
Backmann:. And so our goal obviously is, you know, to get this out everywhere. And whether that means one day being able to start satellite Project Cold Case offices across the country or whether it means inspiring other survivors to start organizations similar–the need is out there.
Hamilton: And the numbers are staggering. Their database is stocked with over 2,000 unsolved cases, 250 of which he has gotten to speak directly with the family of the victim.
Backmann: So it probably averages out to somewhere between 15 and 20 a month come in. And some of them, like I said, are our law enforcement submissions some of them are from families some of them are from Florida. Some of them are from outside of Florida. So we’ve had seven cases that we’ve featured on our Web site that have ended in an arrest, and I kind of word it that way because we’re not physically going out there and interviewing suspects, and we’re not you know we don’t have a lab to test DNA but what we’re doing is we’re creating that awareness when we contact the sheriff’s office. A lot of times we can get the ball moving on a case that may have may have evidence that technology now is better at solving than when the crime happened.
Hamilton: Project Cold Case recently got the ball rolling enough to help detectives solve One of Jacksonville’s oldest cold cases. When the non-profit heard about Freddie’s case, they posted a profile and got almost 15,000 hits on it (probably the most hits they’ve ever gotten on one post). The 1974 murder of Freddie Farah sat for 43 years before officials retested the evidence from the crime scene. When they did, Johnie Lewis Miller, a New Orleans street performer known as “Uncle Louie”, was convicted.
Backmann: I mean it was all the detectives doing the hard work. But we come in as this kind of advocacy group, and we’re helping the family, and we’re meeting with the family, and we’re you know, telling them what to expect, and while they’re going through the judicial process, we’re going to court with them. And you know we spend time with them and answer any questions that they might have. That frees up the detectives to do their job, and that frees up the prosecutors to do their job, and we can be that intermediate go between and help them out.
Hamilton: After the Farah case, he says he desires for families, even ones linked to cold cases in the seventies, to know there is still a chance.
Backmann: That’s one of our main goals is we don’t want them to ever give up on hope. We don’t want them to ever think that their loved one has been forgotten, and that no one cares. We want them to know that we do care, and that as long as they want the information out there, we’ll put it out there and with the idea that someone somewhere might see it and come forward with new information.
Hamilton: His biggest long-term goal is to get funding for private DNA lab testing.
Backmann: The state labs for testing DNA are just so backed-up, and they’re backed-up with current cases, and cold cases take a backseat, and it just takes forever to get old evidence relooked at, especially if they’ve looked at it over the past few years. It’s just the priority drops. And that’s understandable. But there’s private labs out there that can test that evidence, and they can do it relatively quickly and actually have better technology because they’re for profit labs so they have the newest and best technology.
Hamilton: Getting funds and having money flow is one of the harder parts of running a non- profit.
Backmann: Money cannot be the thing that stops you know solving a case and keeps a killer on the street. It costs us about five thousand dollars to run one of those tests. So it’s expensive, but we need you know we’ve got to be able to find that money somewhere. Do that for the safety of everybody in these communities.
Hamilton: Overall, in the three years Project Cold Case has been around, they have made extraordinary leaps towards justice.
Backmann: Well I hope what I’ve been able to do is kind of changed to the idea that that it’s okay for people to get away with murder, you know, and that if you can avoid detection for a year, and then the case will be gone, and nobody will ever mention it again. You know, one of the main things I realized when I was fighting for justice for my dad was that you know people were very empathetic when I was speaking to them. But then when we left we parted ways. I’d never hear from him again, never see him. They would never follow up on what they said they could do for the organization or my dad. So what I realized was I really had to kind of come at this from a public safety issue. The guy that killed my dad could live in your neighborhood. Like that kind of thing makes people a little more aware.