Dec. 22--In the years that followed a 1989 fatal fire in Keene, the lone suspect had started a new life, nearly 3,000 miles from the site of the alleged crime, in West Sacramento, Calif., with his wife and two children.
Not until decades after the fire would authorities with the New Hampshire's newly formed Cold Case Unit arrest David B. McLeod in connection with starting the blaze and that killed a Keene family.
Investigators had interviewed McLeod and multiple witnesses in the days following the fire, but it wasn't until June 2010 that he was arrested and charged with four counts of second-degree murder. McLeod was the unit's first arrest and the first of its cold cases to go to trial.
Today, he remains incarcerated at the Cheshire County jail, after a judge declared a mistrial in the case last week because of a hung jury. Whether prosecutors will retry him is unclear at this time.
Although the McLeod case is pending, it's likely to have paved the way for the prosecution of unrelated New Hampshire cold cases investigated more recently. At least two other accused murderers could have their day in court in the months ahead, according to Assistant Attorney General Benjamin J. Agati, who works on the Cold Case Unit.
A grand jury recently handed down an indictment in the 1991 murder of Theresa Reed of Plymouth, who was allegedly stabbed multiple times with a knife at the hands of Craig W. Conkey, 46, of Shirley, Mass. In an unrelated case, Arthur Collins, 43, of Manchester has been arrested and charged with second-degree murder for allegedly shooting George Jodoin, 50, of Auburn multiple times in the head and neck with a firearm.
But not every cold case that the unit considers solved results in prosecution, Agati said. Such is the situation in Salem where investigators recently learned the person who allegedly stabbed John Pawn Jr. to death in his apartment in 1990 is now dead.
"The successful conclusion to a cold case is not necessarily a guilty verdict," he said.
Challenges after a case goes cold
The homicides the Cold Case Unit is investigating date back to 1966. And the reality is witnesses may or may not be alive today, or may have relocated since the tragedy making them difficult to find, said Detective Robert Freitas, who is a member of the Cold Case Unit.
Accused murderers have a right to confront their accusers in court, but the passage of time can make that increasingly difficult, Freitas said.
In the McLeod trial, memories clouded by the nearly 25-year gap since a fire burned down a Keene apartment building and killed four people took center stage. At times, witnesses remembered that fatal night differently on the stand than they had in interviews with police in 1989.
And yet for the family members who are still grieving the loss of a loved one decades later, "It's as if the crime happened yesterday," said Trooper Michael Kokoski, a detective with the N.H. State Police's Major Crime Unit and member of the Cold Case Unit.
Family members want to know that authorities haven't forgotten them and that maybe one day they'll be able to find closure, Kokoski said. That's why a unit dedicated specifically to investigating suspected homicides where local authorities have come up cold is so important, he noted.
A unit for unsolved cases is born
In July 2009, N.H. Governor John Lynch signed House Bill 690 into law, creating the state's first Cold Case Unit designed to investigate and prosecute unsolved homicides, suspicious deaths and missing person cases. In the unit's first few months, it would identify approximately 120 victims state-wide whose killers had not been found.
The 1989 deaths of four members of the Hina family of Keene was the first unsolved case the unit focused on in January 2010. Six months later, they had McLeod in custody and he's been held without bail at the Cheshire County jail ever since.