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VSP's Major Crime Unit investigates dozens of cold cases. It can be a challenge to move them forward

A man stands at a podium.
Liam Elder-Connors
Vermont Public
Vermont State Police last month announced a $40,000 reward for information leading to the recovery of Brianna Maitland. Her suspicious disappearance 20 years ago is one of the state’s most high profile unsolved cases.

Last month Vermont State Police announced a $40,000 reward in one of the state’s most high-profile unsolved cases — the suspicious disappearance of Montgomery resident Brianna Maitland 20 years ago.

Maitland isn't the only so-called “cold case" in Vermont. There are more than 80 unsolved homicides and missing persons cases — some that date back to the 1950s and come from all corners of the state: Bruce Isaacs, a 29-year-old transient, was found dead at Little River State park in 1988. Police found 45-year-old Doris Baker dead in 1958 at the Barre business she owned with her husband. And in 2001, 28-year-old Dean Webster was fatally shot outside his home in Rochester.

Sandy Webster, Dean’s younger sister, said in a recent interview her brother was a kind, adventurous person. More than 20 years after his death, Webster said she still hasn’t processed it.

“When you know somebody's dying from cancer, you know that they're going to die at some point ,” she said. "And everybody dies — sure. But his [death] was pretty tragic and all of a sudden.”

Dean Webster’s killing is one of dozens of unsolved homicides in Vermont.

These old cases present unique challenges, according to Lt. John-Paul Schmidt, the southern commander for the Vermont State Police’s Major Crime Unit, which tackles the state’s cold cases. Witnesses and detectives who worked on them might be dead. Physical evidence can deteriorate. Even just collecting the case files can be tricky.

“We found that there's stuff missing over time, there's stuff that was destroyed in Hurricane Irene,” Schmidt said.

More from Vermont Public: VSP offers $40K reward to help find Brianna Maitland 20 years after disappearance

The Major Crime Unit, which was created in 2015, also handles homicides, police shootings and other complex investigations — and detectives often get called away to handle those new cases, making it difficult to focus on cold cases. The unit has picked up an average of 11 new homicides per year since 2015, according to data from state police.

That’s why, in 2018, state police hired two part-time civilian analysts to focus exclusively on the unsolved cases. The team digitizes and organizes case files, develops witness lists and sees if old evidence can be tested for DNA.

The goal is to move cases forward — even just a small step, said Heather Gibbs, one of the analysts.

“If we can rule out one more piece of evidence or talk to some person they never talked to before or couldn't find, I mean, they don't sound big, but these are all things that we can do that help it move forward,” she said.

DNA testing has helped investigators in cold cases, even if it’s just eliminating suspects. A few years ago, state police found the person who matched DNA evidence recovered from the scene of Brianna Maitland’s disappearance, Gibbs said.

“A suspect wasn't developed, but it's been since 2004 and we didn't know if that piece of evidence was related or not, or who that person was, or what they might have to say,” Gibbs said. “So now that's a door that we can firmly close and we don't ever have to look at or wonder about that again.”

More from Vermont Public: After more than 50 years, Burlington police say they've solved the murder of Rita Curran

Police have only solved a couple cold cases in the past decade.

Last year, Burlington police announced they’d solved the 50-year-old murder of Rita Curran, but the alleged killer died in 1986. And in 2022, the Major Crime Unit made its first arrest in an unsolved case: the 1989 killing of George and Catherine Peacock. The couple was fatally stabbed at their home in Danby.

Liam Elder-Connors
Vermont Public
Burlington police last year announced they had solved the 50 year old murder of Rita Curran, but the alleged killer died in 1986.

Brad Hanson, the other analyst, said it took a long time to sort through that case file.

“Organizing, sifting, going through, doing a complete evidence review, which resulted in identifying some other pieces of evidence to be tested, which bore the fruit we were looking for,” he said.

That additional evidence was a spot of blood in the car of Michael Louise, the Peacocks’ son-in-law. Advances in DNA testing allowed police to match the blood to George Peacock. Louise, who’s in his 80s, pleaded not guilty to two charges of second degree murder.

Schmidt, the southern commander for the Major Crime Unit, said not all unsolved cases will end with a conviction or even an arrest.

“And that could be circumstances, well, everybody's dead — you can't arrest dead people, we can't prosecute dead people,” he said. “But we're still trying to get answers for families that are left behind. And those answers might just be a little bit more information than they had yesterday.”

For Sandy Webster, it’s been years since state police had any significant updates about her brother’s killing.

“You kind of feel like something's gonna happen, they're gonna find somebody, they're going to figure something out,” Webster said. “And then it's almost like a build up to be a huge letdown.”

Webster knows nothing will bring Dean back, but still, she said, it would be nice to know what happened to him.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.


Liam is Vermont Public’s public safety reporter, focusing on law enforcement, courts and the prison system.
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