County’s cold cases start to thaw

Like many family members of victims in unsolved killings, Judy Lau’s torment has been especially burdensome because she knows someone walks the world a free man despite taking her father’s life.

After years of anguish, only recently has Lau — who was 19 when her father, Can Lau, was shot twice at point-blank range and killed in his car in Burlingame in 1997 — contacted police to seek details of that night.

“Our [family’s] life turned around 180 degrees in one night,” said Lau, now 30. “You just can’t imagine how awful it was.”

Lau is among hundreds of family members still without closure from the 292 unsolved killings in San Mateo County from 1987 to 2006. Decades later, some cases are filed in boxes labeled “cold,” others are frustrating diligent detectives and a few are on the brink of being solved thanks to new technology.

The most promising aspect of revisiting old slayings, authorities say, is the hope that DNA technology will allow investigators to open doors not available when the crime was committed, said Sgt. Bryan Cassandro, a San MateoCounty Sheriff’s Office cold-case investigator.

“For a lot of the cold cases back 20-plus years ago, we didn’t have the technology or resources that are available to law enforcement now,” South San Francisco Detective Bob Collins said.

Recent advances in forensic science — such as ballistics and DNA testing — have helped solve many cases by re-examining old evidence.

There is also a computerized national database called CODIS — the Combined DNA Index System — storing more than 1 million DNA profiles of known felons that can allow police to match an unidentified sample with a known criminal. CODIS also permits the cross-comparison of DNA in the database with biological evidence found at crime scenes.

In addition to the national archives, California’s Bureau of Forensic Services’ DNA database has more than 1 million profiles of people convicted of a felony or arrested for a homicide or sex offense. The lab has released more than 5,000 cold hits that have helped solve crimes.

“Nothing’s ever cold,” Hillsborough police Capt. Mark O’Connor said. “It’s just a matter of how much time and how many contacts can be made.”

Occasionally, cold-case investigations pay off. The District Attorney’s Office is prosecuting two once-cold homicides from 1989 and 2001. Both were cracked by Daly City detectives, including Gregg Oglesby.

“The families in the ’89 and ’01 cases were still deeply affected by what happened and hadn’t really recovered,” Oglesby said. “This kind of brought them one step closer to getting some closure.”

For Judy Lau, seeing her father’s killer behind bars may be the only way.

“Until they find this person, I don’t know if I would ever be able to find closure,” she said, fighting off tears. “When and if they do, I think I would be more at peace.”

Burdensome cost of manpower leaves investigations dawdling

Most officials from the 22 law enforcement agencies that preside over the more than 700,000 residents in the county say re-examining cold cases is challenging because they have the manpower to only examine fresh crimes.

“We don’t have the bodies for a cold-case unit,” Burlingame police Cmdr. Mike Matteucci said.

Many Peninsula police departments assign detectives to work on cold cases sparingly, police said.

A few larger police departments, such as Daly City’s, have a few detectives who regularly work on cold cases when they can. Other departments, including the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office, contract a homicide detective who occasionally reviews cold cases for new leads.

Cost is a factor in how police departments can tackle cold cases. With looming state budget cuts threatening the livelihoods of police officers around the county, there likely will be fewer eyes on cold cases.

The cost of DNA analysis is yet another factor. Though local evidence is prepared at the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Crime Lab, the actual DNA testing is done in Santa Clara County.

Fortunately, the families of victims in unsolved killings have become inspired by television programs such as “CSI” and are becoming more involved in cold cases, South San Francisco Detective Bob Collins said.

“It wasn’t popular for families at all to be involved in investigations in 1979,” said Ardis Lionudakis, whose husband, Michael Olson, was killed in an unsolved San Mateo triple slaying in 1979. “We basically sat home waiting to hear things.”

By the numbers

San Mateo County

» 292: Unsolved killings between 1987 and 2006

» 189: Homicides between 2000 and 2007


» $31.5 million: Spent by state on DNA technology for cold-case investigations

» 1 million: Profiles in DNA database of convicted murderers or sex offenders

» 5,000: Exact matches of profiles to cold cases

» Jan. 1: Beginning of DNA collection for arrested felons

Source: California Bureau of Forensic Services, San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office

Headline-grabbing unsolved cases in county history

» North County Serial Killer

A man went on a killing spree in the northern parts of the county during a three-month period in 1976, killing five young women and sexually assaulting four of them. Five local police departments working on the case have been able to collect a DNA composite on the suspect, but have no sketch.

» The Payless Murders

The only unsolved triple killing in California took place in a San Mateo drugstore in 1979. Three employees — age 16, 17 and 23 — were killed when the Payless Super Drug Store was robbed after it closed.

» Little Girl’s Tragic Walk Home

Michele Matteucci, 12, was only a few doors from her home in Daly City when she was strangled to death after school in 1987.

» The Decade-Long Manhunt

Burlingame police are still looking for Wei Tung Woo, the alleged killer of Can Lau. Police said Lau was killed after he gave Woo’s ex-girlfriend a ride home in 1997. Woo allegedly pistol-whipped his ex-girlfriend, walked to the other side of the car and shot Lau twice at point-blank range.

» No Area Too Safe

Priscilla Ng, 58 at the time of her death in 2004, was tied up and beaten to death inside a house on Hillsborough’s Butternut Drive, a street lined with multimillion-dollar homes. A male acquaintance of Ng survived the 2004 slaying in the home’s master bedroom.

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