Secret Confessions Can Crack Cold Cases

By: Gerri L. Elder

Due to advances in forensics technology, many criminal cases that went cold long ago can now be solved, and criminal charges can finally be issued. In some instances, DNA analysis or other relatively new technology has been the key to solving cold cases. However, in other cases, the pieces seem to simply fall together.

While there are still many unsolved criminal cold cases that may never be solved, the Associated Press recently highlighted a 15-year-old murder case that broke wide open when James Stroh II and his wife decided to divorce.

Candace Rough Surface was murdered in South Dakota in 1980. Investigators hit a dead end in the case and no arrests were made.

After 15 years, the case seemed to be one that would never be solved. Then Stroh and his wife decided to divorce. Almost instantly after the Strohs’s marriage broke up, police received a tip that led to the arrests of James Stroh II and his cousin Nicholas Scherr.

During the marriage, Stroh had confessed to his wife that he played a role in the murder of Surface. His wife shared this dark secret with her mother. When the marriage fell apart and the divorce papers were filed, Stroh’s mother-in-law decided to tell police what she knew.

According to Stroh’s confession, the murder was Scherr’s idea. Scherr was 16 years old in 1980 and had attended a party on the night of the murder. After the party, he raped Surface and then shot and killed her.

Stroh and Scherr both pleaded guilty in the case. Stroh was sentenced to 15 years in prison for his part in the murder and cover-up. Scherr was sentenced to 100 years behind bars.

FBI investigators say that the smallest bit of information, even if it is only a second hand account of a crime that has been overheard, can sometimes provide a valuable tip that can lead to a cold case being solved. If Stroh’s mother-in-law had not come forward with the information she had heard from her daughter, the murder of Candace Rough Surface might never have been solved.

After a number of years pass with no new leads or arrests in a criminal case, the chances of the case ever being solved can be greatly diminished. In some cases key evidence can deteriorate or be lost. Additionally, witnesses can die, disappear or have trouble remembering specifics of the case over time. These circumstances can further diminish the chances of solving a cold case.

However, sometimes the passage of time can give perpetrators a sense of security. In some cold cases, such as the murder of Candace Rough Surface, the fact that the murderer confides in someone or even brags about the crime in some cases is enough to breathe new life into the investigation.

New forensic technology and knowledge of secret confessions are also beneficial in criminal appeals when the wrong person has been convicted of a crime. Advances in DNA and fingerprint analysis, along with other scientific advancements over the years, can not only crack cold cases, but can also be used sometimes to clear the names of people who are currently serving time for the crimes of others.

For the innocent people who spend their days looking at the walls inside a prison cell, technology advancements may offer hope for true justice. Failing that, there may be the chance that loose lips will sink the real guilty party’s ship.