Technological advances, new leads fuel hope of solving some of city’s oldest murder mysteries

The oldest of Harrisonburg’s four homicide cold cases is that of HPD officer Manuel Trenary in 1959, who was fatally shot while responding to an alarm at the L&S Diner.

By Eric Gorton, contributor

“We’ve got him!”

Those are the words Det. L. Brooke Wetherell dreams of one day saying to the families of victims of some of Harrisonburg’s oldest unsolved murder cases.

“I’ve met with these victims’ families and once you meet them, you don’t ever want to stop” working the case, Wetherell said in a telephone interview. “When you can reopen one of these cases, you almost become like a family member to that victim, you think about it all the time and all you want to do at that point is find out who did it.”

Based on some recent tips, some fresh looks at cases and some advances in DNA technology, the eight-year police department veteran is optimistic she will help provide some closure to at least one or two families.

Unsolved murder cases are labeled “cold” when all leads have dried up, Wetherell said, and the HPD has four of them. The oldest is the murder of one of the department’s own, Sgt. Manuel Trenary, who was gunned down on Oct. 8, 1959, while responding to an alarm at the L&S Diner. The others are Kelly Bergh-Dove, 20, who was as abducted in June 1982 from her job as a clerk at the former Imperial Gas Station along South Main Street and has never been found; Robin Smith Roadcap, 31, a mother of two who was found dead in her Vine Street apartment on Jan. 6, 1997; and Thaxton Keith Simms,  57, who was found dead Nov. 1, 2012, in his Dutch Mill Court apartment.

The HPD issued a press release on March 27 about the reopening of the Simms case after getting a tip, Wetherell said. While his death had been considered suspicious from the outset, it was not initially investigated as a homicide.

“We didn’t have enough facts and enough circumstantial evidence at the time to believe he had been murdered,” Wetherell said. “It wasn’t until later when we received a tip, many years later, that we recognized that that case could very well also be a homicide.”

Wetherell, one of nine HPD detectives who investigate a variety of crimes in addition to homicides, is not assigned to the Simms case but said DNA evidence has been submitted to a lab in hopes advances in technology will help.

“Lab results take a long time to get back, so that case is a navigation between the facts that we’ve received and how we saw the case when it happened eight years ago,” she said. “It’s still open, there are things we are still doing.”

The department issued the press release in hopes of getting more tips – a key strategy police use to solve cold cases.

“Keeping the conversation going is what will get us to the end of this,” said Wetherell, who is nearing her third anniversary as a detective. “We all say we are good at keeping secrets, but nobody can truly keep a secret. Somebody knows something. You just hope to reach that one person and convince them they’re holding the missing piece, who can fill in the blanks for us.”

Perhaps the most promising case is that of Robin Roadcap. Investigators recovered DNA evidence from the scene, but the technology was not as sophisticated then as it is now.

“Some of the things companies like [Parabon NanoLabs] are doing, taking DNA and using it to help cold cases, the technology is incredible,” Wetherell said. “The things we can do now that we couldn’t do five years ago, things we can do now that we definitely couldn’t do 38 years ago when Kelly Dove disappeared. … I think we’re hot on some things with the Roadcap case, if we could get the puzzle pieces to fit the way that we need them to, we could be right on track again.”

A story in Wednesday’s Richmond Times-Dispatch stated that Parabon employs a process that predicts physical traits and ancestry from DNA evidence and genetic genealogy. Chesterfield Police used Parabon results to create a sketch of an unknown victim whose torso, leg and foot were found in a landfill in August 1986. The sketch led to the identification earlier this year of a 16-year-old girl who disappeared in June 1986 and had never been found.

Wetherell, a 28-year-old Bridgewater native who became interested in police work as a child while watching police dramas with her mother, is hoping such advances will shed new light on a suspect in Roadcap’s murder, where the DNA samples have mixtures of DNA from more than one person.

“It could have been anybody and everybody,” Wetherell said. “She was outgoing. She was on the phone with a lot of people that night. Over the years, the case was heavily devoted to one person they thought was responsible and it made a lot of sense. It looked good. It wasn’t until later on when they got some DNA results back and that guy didn’t match. They realized maybe it wasn’t him. I reopened that case with another detective in Feb. 2019 and I really feel like we owe it to her family [to solve it.].”

Also interesting in the Roadcap case, Wetherell said, is that it is linked to an unsolved robbery of a motel in Staunton a couple days after Roadcap’s murder. The link did not surface until 2010, when DNA results from a robbery suspect’s sweater and hat matched DNA from evidence in the Roadcap murder. In addition, the motel had a camera, and while the quality of the VHS tape is poor, it is good enough to see that it is a white male, Wetherell said.

The Kelly Bergh-Dove case also has been reopened based on recent tips. That case has probably received the most attention of all the city’s cold cases, having been featured on ABC’s Nightline program and also on a number of podcasts and social media outlets.

“Anything that you can imagine on that case is out there,” Wetherell said.

However, because the abduction occurred 38 years ago, time could be running out as key witnesses have aged and some have died.

“We’re at a point now where we need to really be moving on this because the people we need to talk to might not be here for us to talk to in another 10 years,” Wetherell said.

Wetherell has not worked the Trenary case and is unsure of its status. She said the case is “near and dear to us because he was a police officer,” but the amount of time that has passed makes it difficult. “We might find out that the person who committed that crime is not even alive anymore if we were to get to that point,” she said.

When leads dry up, cases make their way to the archive office, Wetherell said.

“It sits there. It doesn’t have eyes on it every day and it’s not until someone new comes around and takes a look at it. It’s just the ins and outs of making sure we’re balancing the crimes that are happening right now, the victims we see every day and also making sure we’re still applying the effort and the work that we can to those cases that deserve justice.”

Having a detective unfamiliar with a cold case take a look often opens new possibilities for solving it.

“In the Roadcap case, we interviewed hundreds of people. Not that all of them were suspects, but many of them were potential suspects and so you look back later and say, ‘maybe it’s none of these people. Maybe it’s somebody completely different.’ Having fresh eyes is important when you look back into these cases. It takes that outside person to look and say, ‘Why don’t we go in this direction for a little bit and just see where that takes us?'”

Until becoming an investigator, Wetherell said she was not sure she would like that aspect of the job. Now it’s one of her favorite positions. As for cold cases, “My absolute dream is to go back to one of these families and say, ‘we’ve got him.’”

Tips can be provided by calling the Major Crimes Unit at  (540) 437-2640. Anonymous tips can be sent to Crime Solvers by calling (540) 574-5050 or by texting “HPD” plus the tip to CRIMES (274637).

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