Calling in Reinforcements

by Jul 17, 2023History, South Brunswick

Five citizen volunteers with the Unsolved Case Unit assist the Brunswick County Sheriff’s Office with piecing together the details of unsolved crimes.

Citizen volunteers make a huge difference at the Brunswick County Sheriff ’s Office. More than 200 active volunteers fulfill many needs including working with animal protective services, accompanying deputies during involuntary commitment transportation and assisting with traffic control and neighborhood watches, to name a few.

In 2016 the sheriff ’s office established the Unsolved Case Unit with volunteers of very specific backgrounds in civilian life to work on unsolved crime cases across Brunswick County. Today, the Unsolved Case Unit is staffed with five local civilian volunteers.

“These volunteers are a dedicated team with unmatched tenacity,” says Major Israel West of the Brunswick County Sheriff ’s Office. He is right.

JIM WESTBROOK of Southport was one of the first volunteers to be sworn in as a civilian investigative specialist with the intelligence Unit.

“I agreed to join the team six years ago because I saw the unit’s purpose,” Westbrook says. “The team was forming not just to solve old crimes, but to tell victims’ families that everything possible was being done to solve the crime.

I found this to be a very worthwhile initiative.”

Gina Sculpture Brunswick County NC

Westbrook spent 38 years in the U.S. Air Force and the Defense Intelligence Agency. During his last 10 years, he provided analytical support to the Drug Enforcement Administration, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Southport resident WOODY CLOOKIE is the Unsolved Case Unit supervisor working under Lieutenant April Cherry, who is responsible for the unit. When asked to join the unit, Clookie said, “Work on cold cases? Count me in!” That was 12 years ago. Clookie brings 25 years of experience with the Coast Guard to this role, including 13 years as a special agent with Coast Guard Intelligence doing criminal investigations, drug interdictions, port security, arson, sabotage, counterterrorism, foreign counter intelligence and crime on the high seas.

“I volunteered for the Unsolved Case Unit because I saw it as a way to utilize my prior experience to give back to the community,” Clookie says. “I believe the victim, missing person or unidentified remains deserve justice.”

The Unsolved Case Unit work begins when Brunswick County Sheriff Brian Chism hands the group a case file.

“The case file becomes our crime scene,” Clookie says. “It contains everything that happened with the incident in perpetuity as well as lab tests and witness statements.” Clookie recalls his first case, the murder of a young woman in the Leland area from 1987. This case, which received national coverage, is still unsolved. “This is a most complex case,” Clookie says. “There are 23,000 pages in the case file. We leave cases like this open. People pop up at different times with what they think is a viable lead. And off we go. The most challenging part of what we do is the age of potential witnesses, information and evidence.”

MARY DONCOURT from Southport is the resident DNA expert on the team.

“Changes in DNA technology occur quickly,” Doncourt says. “When I started with the unit, DNA was in the early stages. In the beginning, DNA testing required a hair follicle. Now, DNA can be extracted from just a hair shaft. State-of-the-art labs can do things that no one has ever dreamed of, like forensic genealogy of unidentified victims and replication of samples.  Some of our cases are so old that DNA was not even a thought then, but we look for viable DNA in every case no matter how old. I rely on other experts in the field to help determine if evidence was maintained and if it’s viable.”

Unsolved Case Unit Brunswick County NC

Clookie adds, “DNA is fabulous to identify someone. And it’s also good to exclude people.”

“But there are limitations,” Doncourt quickly interjects. “Some tests use up an entire sample. We have to consider if we are willing to take that risk. And DNA testing is expensive.”

In many situations, the risk is worth it, as it was when the Unsolved Case Unit sent a sample to a lab from an unidentified female victim from a 1979 Brunswick County case. “The case is not solved yet, but we think we found a family tree line and may know who she is,” Doncourt says. “After all these years, Jane Doe may finally have a name. The opportunity to find answers for a family and to give the unidentified a name so they may rest in peace is important to me. No one should spend eternity in a box at the medical examiner’s office.”

GINA BARRY from Oak Island is a forensic artist on the team.

Joining in 2019, Barry provides composite sketches, ageprogression drawings of children and fugitives, and postmortem drawings. She spent 31 years in the prosecutor’s office in New York issuing search warrants and subpoenas. She is also trained in facial imaging from the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia.

“Composites are most widely used by the police as a tool to identify someone,” Barry says. “When I do a composite, I am only interested in the face. I describe the process to the victim like the Mr. Potato Head game. Pick eyes. Pick a face shape. I sketch, move it around, shade it in. Together, the victim and I get the memory on paper.”

Barry also does facial reconstruction, recreating faces of individuals whose identity is often not known from skeletal remains.

PEACH O’GORMAN, originally from the United Kingdom, landed in Southport after living in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Hong Kong. She came on board with the Unsolved Case Unit in 2013 at Clookie’s request for her expert computer skills. O’Gorman’s first task was to digitize all of the paper files into a database.

“I read each and every page to decide how to electronically file it,” O’Gorman says. “I categorized and sorted by incident, witness and suspect. Much evidence had been preserved on old technology like tiny tapes and VHS recordings. I had to find ways to digitize everything. Challenging, but fun, it was a long process.” When that project was complete, O’Gorman transferred the entire database into a new records management system in 2020. She transferred a dozen unsolved cases into the new system.

“I always want justice for the victims who have become real to me after reading their cases,” says O’Gorman, who in addition to her tech savvy makes the best cookies according to the team. “I’m a dog with a bone, well more like a chew toy. Until I sort something out. I tear it up.”

All five volunteers agree that some of their best work happens in brainstorming sessions when they are bouncing ideas off each other. “We have five sets of eyes, five different backgrounds and lots of varied training,” Doncourt says. “We pull together and focus. Because we are very different people, we view the cases from very different perspectives.  Sometimes we come up with the most off-the-wall approaches to a case.”

They approach the work like a big ball of string: Grab one end and pull. If that doesn’t get an answer, pull another. In all cases, the team is extremely aware of the feelings of the family impacted.

“When we get a brainstorming session going, we all throw in thoughts. It works really well. We are not at all alike, but we are a team. That sums us up best,” Westbrook says.

The Unsolved Case Unit is actively investigating 10 cases in Brunswick County. They are on the cusp of solving several of them. “It’s not like TV where a case is solved in an hour,” Doncourt says. “We are dealing with cases that are more than 30 years old,” Westbrook adds. “Witnesses are often deceased or unable to remember events from so long ago with any consistency.”

Facial Reconstruction Skulls

The team may uncover sufficient information that points to a suspect, but they may not have ample information for the case to be prosecutable. Many times testimony is unreliable and witnesses are incapable of testifying and no arrest can be made.

The five volunteers accumulated nearly 1,800 hours of volunteer time last year. “In addition to unsolved cases, we sometimes assist other agencies,” explains Cherry, who makes the decisions on what is turned over to local authorities like Southport and Wilmington police. Lieutenant Cherry transferred to the Unsolved Case Unit in June 2022 and ever since has admired the knowledge, skills and compassion each team player brings to the table.

“The only ones who know everything about a case are the victim, the culprit and God,” West says. “We call our cases unsolved, not cold, because we are always working. Everything done right and wrong, everything gathered and not gathered, is forever locked into that day. It’s a badge of honor to be part of this team.”

“We are just one part of the larger cog,” Westbrook humbly concludes.