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'How can you put a price tag on that?' Cold case unit faces closure

KENT, Wash. - Down a winding hallway, under the hum of fluorescent lighting, in a cavernous building in Kent, lies a nondescript door that remains under lock and key.

Behind that door - buried deep within hundreds of neatly labeled three-ring binders - are many of the untold stories of King County.

They are the missing. The murdered. The dead.

Some of the stories haunt Tom Jensen.

"They stay with you," said Jensen, a retired detective. "I think it's important to be able to bring the bad guy to justice, you know? Find out who did it and get him off the street, for whatever reason. He doesn't deserve to be out there if he killed that little girl."

Jensen spent decades with the King County Sheriff's Office and played a crucial role in capturing Green River Killer Gary Ridgway.

Today he spends his time hopeful he'll be able to do the same for families like Sarah Yarborough's.

Yarborough - a Federal Way High School student - was strangled to death in 1991. Her family has waited for answers in the case for two decades.

"There isn't closure. I don't have a sister. My parents don't have a daughter," said Sarah's brother, Andrew. "Those are experiences and memories that are just lost. We would like to see somebody held accountable."

Jensen, too, would like to see someone held accountable in the Yarborough case, but his days - and those of two other detectives - could be numbered. Later this year, the federal grant that funds the King County Cold Case Unit runs out. Without additional money, the future of the unit is uncertain.

"If there's somebody out there that's committed a murder, that guy needs to be taken off the street," said Jensen. "I can't say much more than that."

"That whole idea that this guy was walking free was maddening"

Closure didn't come easy for the family of Diana Peterson, either.

Peterson was a 16-year old high school student in 1975 - a year when Gerald Ford led the country and Stevie Wonder topped the music charts. Peterson was learning to play guitar that year. She loved to bake and had an artistic flair, said her sister, Marilyn Richter.

On a Valentine's Day that year, Peterson left her home in Richmond Beach to get pizza with friends. Her parents remember hearing a scuffle that evening outside the house, Richter said, but didn't think anything of it - especially having nine children at home.

The next morning, though, Diana's father discovered her body outside their house. She had been stabbed to death.

"I got up and there was chaos all over, police people all over the place," Richter remembers. "It was very traumatic for my dad to find her."

For a while, detectives believed Diana might have been a victim of Ted Bundy's. When they realized she wasn't, they named a person of interest in the case.

Three decades went by, but no arrest was ever made.

"For years, you know, I would sit on the bus and wonder if the person sitting across the aisle from me was my sister's murderer. Was he the guy standing behind me in the grocery store? It often gave me the creeps," Richter said.

"That whole idea that this guy was walking free was maddening," she added.

"I think we have a duty to the families and the citizens"

Diana's death didn't sit well with a lot of people.

Her siblings spent decades hoping for resolution. Her parents prayed for closure.

Jim Allen did, too.

Allen, a 22-year veteran of the King County Sheriff's Office, spent 12 years investigating major crimes before revisiting the Peterson case about five years ago.

He pored over the case file. He reconstructed a timeline of events.

Finding a killer wouldn't be easy. All of the evidence had been destroyed, Allen discovered, except the murder weapon: a knife.

Solving the case would take good, old fashioned detective work, so Allen went back and interviewed everyone he could find.

At one point, he tracked down Jim Groth - a neighbor and friend of Diana's from the time she was killed. Groth talked about stumbling upon Diana's body after she had been killed, and seeing a knife in her back.

"It didn't add up with the evidence from the scene, because her body was found face up. Nobody knew she had been stabbed for several hours," Allen said, of questioning Groth. "He had lied to the police in the beginning and then put himself in the crime scene at the time that the crime occurred."

In 2007, detectives collected enough evidence to arrest Groth.

In 2009, a
jury found enough proof to convict him.

It had been 3 1/2 decades since Diana's murder.

"It was very emotional with the family. It seemed like it was a big burden off their chests," Allen said.

"I feel like it's our moral obligation to investigate these cases," he added. "I think it would be a travesty if we just had to set them on a shelf and let them die a slow death."

"There's families out there that are relying on us to be able to bring justice"

There are more than 200 cold cases in King County waiting for resolution like Diana's.

There are three detectives whose job it is to solve each one.

"I like the challenge of trying to recreate what has been unsolved for many years," said Det. Scott Tompkins. "It's also a great feeling to provide answers to the families who have long wondered what's happened to their loved ones."

Tompkins, Allen, and Jensen, who together have 82 years of experience, make up the Cold Case Unit of the King County Sheriff's Office. Their jobs are funded by a grant from the Department of Justice, said Sgt. Jesse Anderson, who supervises the squad.

The funds from the grant run out later this year, Anderson said. So far, the unit hasn't been able to secure additional money.

"There's families out there that are relying on us to be able to bring justice and closure for them," Anderson said. "Without that money, we just can't afford to continue with those investigations."

Without additional funding, the three detectives assigned to the Cold Case Unit would be reassigned. Detectives from the Major Crimes Unit would handle cold cases in their spare time, Anderson said.

The Sheriff's Office is working behind the scenes to try to keep the unit intact, but so far, no answer has been found, said Sgt. Cindi West, Public Information Officer with the Sheriff's Office.

"Before we had a cold case unit, the homicide detectives worked cold cases as time allowed," added Tompkins. "The problem is, time doesn't allow."

"There's a lot of work to do, and there's a lot of families that their hopes are riding on the unit being there and getting some closure."

"Someone was stopping and saying: her life was important"

Marilyn Richter knows what closure feels like. It came in 2009 - 34 years after her sister Diana had been murdered.

"I get choked up talking about it, because I'm really appreciative," she says, her voice heavy with emotion. "This was the first time that I felt that someone was stopping and saying: her life was important. It was worth investigating."

Richter is in disbelief that the Cold Case Unit faces possible closure for lack of funding. She has written letters of support in the past, and wonders what it would take to prevent the unit from folding.

"How much is it worth to have peace of mind, to have closure on some horrible tragedy?" she asks. "How much worth is in putting away somebody who is continuing to hurt people?"

"How much worth is someone's life? How can you put a price tag on that?"

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