Paulette Brown, holding the sign at right, shows up to Police Commission meetings every week to remind police her son's murder has still not been solved. (Mike Koozmin/S.F. Examiner file photo)

Expanded SFPD cold case unit could help solve hundreds of killings

Paulette Brown is one of the few people to consistently attend meetings of the San Francisco Police Commission every Wednesday night.

She is not a civic activist pressing for reforms or a gadfly attending for the three minutes given to everyone to speak. She is a mother who refuses to forget her dead son.

Brown’s son, Aubrey Abrakasa, was gunned down in the Western Addition on Aug. 14, 2006.

Along with her weekly pleas for help to solve the nearly decade-old crime, Brown carries large images of her son’s body to display. Abrakasa was 17 when he was killed.

Every week, her pleas go unheeded, even as commission President Suzy Loftus tells the audience and government-access viewers to call police if they have any clues about who killed Abrakasa.

Now, some help might be on the way in the form of an expanded cold case unit inside the San Francisco Police Department’s homicide unit.

The department has asked Mayor Ed Lee and Interim Chief Toney Chaplin for funds to expand the unit, which currently has one full-time inspector and two retired inspectors, according to Cmdr. Greg McEachern, who heads SFPD’s Investigations Division.

The roughly $160,000 budget ask would pay for two additional retired inspectors who would work part-time in the unit.

“Ideally, we’d like to look at every unsolved homicide,” McEachern said, but the staffing is not there. If funded, the new unit should be in place by the end of the summer, he said.

In the past, there have been expanded efforts to work on cold cases, but that was for limited amounts of time because the funding was often grant money.

The cold case unit is currently housed inside the department’s homicide unit in the Hall of Justice and is headed by Lt. Edward Yu. The full-time inspector is Gianrico Pierucci, who is retired, and former cold case Lt. Jim Spillane works alongside retired Inspector Ed Wynkoop.

In the meantime, the department is going back to the year 2000 and looking at high-profile, unsolved homicides, McEachern said. In all, there are more than 500 unsolved homicides since then.

In addition to the budget request, a new website is in the works. It will have a landing page that includes reward information for individual homicide cases, a reissuing of bulletins on rewards and a reassessment of reward amounts.

An ordinance passed by the Board of Supervisors earlier this year will also help the efforts. That ordinance raised the reward amount for information leading to the arrest of suspects in homicides cases to $250,000.

Long-term plan

The hope is to eventually create a full-time unit with about eight inspectors, McEachern said.

The unit, for instance, would be in place to use new DNA tools on old cases, according to Major Crimes Cpt. Michael Connolly. As technology advances, less DNA is needed for a positive match, so old cases with DNA evidence can now be retested with potentially different results.

As it stands, the approach to each cold case — and how a case becomes cold — varies, Connolly added.

An inspector assigned a cold case typically looks at the physical evidence first and asks: Is there DNA that could be retested? Is there other forensic evidence that has not been tested?

The inspector might then reinterview witnesses or find new ones.

But the cold case unit also looks for larger patterns that others might have previously missed.

“Just looking at the case, not only from an individual standpoint but collectively — are theses cases related to anything else?” Connolly said.

Sometimes, that can mean noticing when one witness pops up at different crime scenes. The witness might be reinterviewed.

“You always seem to be at the right place at the right time,’” Connolly said, explaining the process.

What is a cold case?

How cases become cold is dependent on numerous factors.

“Not all homicides are created equal,” Connolly said.

Sometimes all of the leads run dry or an inspector will retire or be transferred. In other instances, the inspector might have a suspect but he or she isn’t be able to get enough evidence to charge that person.

That’s the case in the killing of Brown’s son, according to Connolly.

“She is intimately aware of the individuals in the community who [allegedly] killed her son,” he said.

Other cases go cold for an entirely different reason: A known suspect might become the victim of a killing themselves, Connolly said. And while that case isn’t technically solved, the death of the main suspect does in many ways shut the book on the case.

That being said, cases may go cold but they are never closed.

“There is no statute of limitations on homicide,” Connolly said. “Anything that has happened in the last 100 years that has not been solved is, in theory, an open case.”

Brown said Wednesday she met with an inspector earlier this week for the first time in nearly a decade but is only slightly optimistic that her son’s killer will be brought to justice.

“They don’t have anything,” she said. “They say they’re going to start from scratch.”

Still, Brown plans to keep the pressure on police to solve the crime.

“Give me some kind of closure,” she said.

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