“I just feel like I owe them everything,” Gael Schneider said of the detectives who solved the murder of her daughter, Nicole Pietz.
On Jan. 28, 2006, Pietz was reported missing after she failed to show up for a dinner party. Nine days later, her naked body was discovered by a hiker in a wooded area near Burien. The 32-year-old had been beaten and strangled.
While King County’s Major Crimes Unit focused their attention on her husband from the onset, there simply was not enough evidence to charge Martin “David” Pietz with her murder.
The case turned cold.
“We all knew who did it; who the murderer was,” said Schneider, who spoke with KIRO Radio by phone Wednesday from her home in Arizona. “It was just getting the proof.”
It would take more than six years and advances in forensic science to get the proof Nicole’s family was waiting for.
On March 21 of this year, detectives arrested David Pietz for the murder of his wife.
“I was able to call Nicole’s mother…and let her know that David has been arrested for the murder of her daughter,” said Sgt. Jesse Anderson, who oversees the cold case squad. “It is hard to explain that feeling, but it was rewarding.”
The Pietz murder was just one of 228 unsolved homicides the cold case unit set out to solve after their formation in 2009.
A grant from the federal government allowed Major Crimes to dedicate two detectives and a crime analyst to cold cases full time – with impressive results.
Over the past four years, the unit has solved eight homicides; including the 1978 murder of 80-year-old Arlene Roberts and the 2001 stabbing death of real estate agent Mike Emert. They also linked one cold case to the Green River Killer.
But Sgt. Anderson says there is much more work to be done and knows cases will continue to go cold when investigators hit dead ends.
Inside a small room at the King County Administration building in downtown Seattle, he scans shelves full of black binders that represent the 220 cases that remain. He grabs the file on an unsolved homicide from 1942 – the oldest in the bunch.
The case file contains little more than handwritten notes and newspaper clippings.
“A Death Shrouded in Mystery,” one headline reads.
It will likely remain that way.
At the end of the year, the cold case unit will shut down. Their federal grant ran out in September, and the county has no money to keep it running, as Alexa Vaughn of The Seattle Times first reported.
The unit’s two detectives, Scott Tompkins and Jim Allen, will go back to Major Crimes. Analyst Tom Jensen, a retired detective and 40-year veteran of the department, will lose his job.
In their final month, the team will work to organize files and digitize remaining evidence. They hope to solve at least one more case before they are forced to put the binders back on their shelves.
“You’re going to probably be hearing some good stuff coming up in the next month here,” Sgt. Anderson said. “We’ve got some cases that are pending that we’re hoping will get closed by the end of the month here.”
After Jan. 1, Sgt. Anderson said detectives will investigate cold cases only if given a new lead.
“We’re not going to be able to proactively work these investigations unless we receive a tip,” he said. “We’re not going to completely ignore them, but they’re not going to get the justice they deserve.”
With the unit gone, murderers can rest a little easier.
“I’m sure that they will appreciate that, that we’re not going to be looking for them,” said Sgt. Anderson. “There’s going to be killers that remained free for years and will continue to remain free.”
And families who spent years waiting for answer will continue to wait.
When told the cold case unit ran out of funding, Gael Schneider was beside herself.
“I feel so badly for all those other people,” she said. “They deserve, like everybody else, to have justice for their loved ones.”