By Susan Boswell | firstname.lastname@example.org
Six years after his father’s murder, Ryan Backmann hasn’t given up hope on the unsolved case. In 2009, Backmann’s father, Cliff Backmann, was shot and killed during what investigators believe was an attempted robbery. Since then, Backmann has dedicated his life to helping solve cases that so many families have watched turn cold.
“Thirty-five out of every 100 murders go unsolved,” says Backmann, who works toward to providing families with closure and promoting public safety. He is the founder of the Jacksonville-based Project Cold Case, which specializes in raising awareness about unsolved homicides and supporting families who have lost loved ones.
Since beginning Project Cold Case, Backmann’s priority has been to convince Florida lawmakers to pass Senate Bill 174, a new law that would help give victims’ families the closure he never had.
SB 174, which Backmann helped create, is sponsored by Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fla. The bill calls for a 19-member task force that would work to install protocol procedures in murder investigations. The team would include members of law enforcement and state officials as well as three representatives from victims’ families.
Involving the families is a key element to the team’s success, Bean says.
“Families should have the right to closure when they have lost a loved one,” says the senator, who recently revised the bill after two previous proposals were rejected.
According to Backmann, the failed bills were inspired by a Colorado bill that proposed the same tactics in solving cold cases. The initial Florida proposals would have cost the Florida Department of Law Enforcement some $2 million to implement. Those proposals included a task force to study best practices and train others on policies and procedures, a review team to investigate old cases, and a statewide database to collect all unsolved homicides in one place so that the public could search and submit tips.
Bean’s revised proposal, calling for only a task force, would cost just $100,000, according to Bean’s office.
Both Backmann and Bean say the bill’s biggest obstacle is funding.
“The estimated cost of implementing the first bill seems expensive until it’s your loved one,” says Backmann, who says no price tag should be put on public safety. “For each of these cold cases there is a killer walking around thinking they can get away with murder, because they already have once.”
According to the newest version of the bill, the task force will “identify best practices and recommend proposals for legislation that may improve the effectiveness of such investigatory policies and procedures.” The task force would also take testimony from members of victims’ families and members of the public to ensure that the force’s duties are accomplished.
According to Backmann’s website, there are more than 1,400 unsolved homicides in Jacksonville alone. Backmann says raising awareness and building community support are two things that are needed to push the bill through.
“It’s not one race, or age bracket, or side of town affected by this either,” he says. “Sometimes people want to believe it can’t happen to them.”
The inspiration behind both the project and SB 174 is Backmann’s desire to keep future generations safe. “I didn’t want my daughter growing up in a society where is was accepted that murders just don’t get solved,” he says. “My fear has always been that the man that killed my dad would do it again.”
Although both Bean and Backmann agree that law enforcement is not to blame for cases turning cold, Backmann says current cold case teams are not prioritizing the cases in the strongest way possible, something the proposed task force would aim to do.
“Most families of unsolved homicides believe law enforcement has long since given up on solving their loved one’s case. Passing this bill sends a message to those families that their loved one is not forgotten.”
Backmann hopes the task force will provide a seamless relationship between families and law enforcement.
Commander Charles Mulligan of the St. Johns County Sherriff’s Office says a bill like this, if passed, would be great for the county.
“I don’t think anyone in the community would be opposed to solving crime especially murder which is the worst of them all, but the devil’s in the details and right now it’s only a bill,” he says. “It could fall flat.”
The St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office lists 17 unsolved homicides on its website which Mulligan says are handled by the county’s cold case unit. A few unsolved cases listed include:
- Nancy Jo Canode was found dead in her home in Ponte Vedra Beach in March of 1981.
- Eve Machan was found dead in a wooded area off County Road 210 in St. Johns County, then 27. She was employed as an exotic dancer in Jacksonville.
- Richard Jeffrey Jackson was found dead at the Sheridan Inn on St. Augustine Beach in 1982 after sustaining multiple stab wounds. Authorities say robbery was a possible motive.
According to a Scripps Howard News Service study of the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, nearly 185,000 homicide and non-negligent manslaughter cases went unsolved from 1980 to 2008 in the United States with 13,000 of the cases occurring in Florida. Backmann believes that Florida’s number has risen to nearly 15,000 since the study was published.
According to the FBI, a law enforcement agency can consider a case cleared when “at least one person is arrested, charged with the commission of the offense, and turned over to the court for prosecution” or through “exceptional means such as when an identified offender is killed during apprehension or commits suicide.” According to the Project Cold Case website, the rate at which homicides are solved has decreased over the past three years.
Backmann says he remains “cautiously optimistic” that SB 174 will pass when presented to the House and the Senate in January. Bean expects the bill will pass.
The lawmaker says that a cold case task force is a fundamental step in the right direction for Florida, but he hasn’t given up on creating laws that would use databases and review teams to help solve cold cases.
“I believe we are at the beginning of something big regarding unsolved homicides in this country,” he says.
“The man that murdered my dad might be behind you in line at the grocery store or live next to your child’s bus stop. Hopefully, one day soon we will be able to say we helped solve one of these cases. That will be a true accomplishment.”