Cold case investigators crack case from 1978 - FOX 35 News Orlando

Cold case investigators crack case from 1978

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Duane Gruette Duane Gruette
George Jones George Jones
PHOENIX -

The year was 1978, and the Yankees were the World Series champs again. Jimmy Carter was president, Affirmed won the Kentucky derby, The Deer Hunter was named best film at the Oscars. In January, the Bee Gees had the number one song.

But it was also the year the Tison Gang broke out of the Arizona State prison and went on a killing spree from Yuma to Kingman before Arizona authorities hunted them down.

It was also the year a Vietnam veteran was shot and killed in a Phoenix bar. A "cold case" that went unsolved -- until now.

The husband, father of three and disabled vet was gunned down during a robbery. Witnesses say the suspect threw a bottle at him, before killing him.

The bottle didn't break. Instead, it helped the detectives break the case.

"I was kind of shocked, I just couldn't believe when they came and told me he was shot and killed."

Jeff Gruette was 23 years old when his father, Duane, a Vietnam veteran, was murdered during a robbery at the Westward Tavern in 1978.

The case grew cold and was eventually buried among the 2,500 other unsolved Phoenix murders. That is until Troy Hillman, a police sergeant with the Phoenix Police Cold Case Unit, dusted it off.

"It was a good case because there were a number of items that hadn't been tested for DNA," says Sgt. Troy Hillman.

The cold case unit, made up of 7 Phoenix investigators, examines cases dating back to 1950. They hope these cold cases can still generate hot leads, with 2,500 cases to go through.

"It's actually typed documents."

It's a daunting task to even figure out where to start. Right now, investigators are prioritizing cases.

They developed a solvability scale.

"One is considered a very poor case, there's nothing to go on, there's no evidence. May have even had a hard time identifying this person and absolutely nothing there to go on forensically or lead wise," says Hillman.

"A lot of them fall in the 2 range, 3 range, mainly 2 because detectives, very good detectives have worked these before and they've pushed them forward as much as they can."

"Then we go up the scale to 4 which is a very good case, which is a few things need to be done and it's going to move forward and clear the case."

The Gruette case was a 2.

Initial detectives did a thorough investigation, and cold case detectives re-examined it in early 2000. But there was a palm print taken from an unbroken beer bottle that a witness says they saw the suspect throw at Gruette inside the bar.

"They were able to process the print, they just didn't have anybody compare it to. Sometimes it takes an arrest or something to get prints on file."

Last year, investigators re-ran the print and got a match.

"When the hit came back he assigned it to me to work with it from there," says Det. JJ Alberta, Phoenix Cold Case Unit.

Detective JJ Alberta went to Yuma to interview the match, 53-year-old George Jones. Jones was in jail on drug charges.

"He told me he was involved, he remembered being there and the incident, however he denied shooting the victim in the case."

Still, Jones was charged with the murder and found guilty. Last Tuesday, Jeff Gruette was in court as Jones was sentenced to life in prison for the crime.

"You know I've been waiting for that for a long time. I feel good, I honestly felt I kind of owed this to my father," says Gruette.

The Cold Case Unit has solved 34 cases since 2009 and they continue to add faces to the board of people arrested. While the case files date back to the 1950's, the oldest case solved is from 1978.

"We started back in 1950, we tried to review every case from 1950 forward," says Hillman.

But in 4 years, detectives haven't even been able to look through all of the cases.

"It's not something you knock out in a half an hour."

Right now they're reviewing cold cases from the year 2000 and forward. They're hitting the streets, knocking on doors and sending evidence from a handful of cases to the lab to get tested, weekly.

"You're not going to get away with murder, we're going to keep trying and not give up," says Sgt. Hillman.

"33 years it took for them to catch this gentleman, 34 for to prosecute him and we got a guilty verdict of first degree murder so don't give up," says Gruette.

The cold case unit has caught some lucky breaks. One time a man walked into the police department to confess to a cold case.

"I think it was a late 80s case, he said I want to clear my conscience, I want to confess to killing a man," says Hillman.

But that kind of break is rare. Despite DNA testing and new technology, the unit still relies on tips from the public to solve cases.

Silent witness Sgt. Darren Burch says, no matter how old the case, tipsters can remain anonymous and may be eligible for a reward.

"Sometimes during the initial investigation, you have witnesses that do not want to be found or can't be found for some reason," says Burch.

If you have information on any cases, call Silent Witness at 480-WITNESS.

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