Unhappy Trails

When two Houston detectives began investigating unsolved murders full-time, they hoped DNA testing would make it easy. They were dead wrong.

Harry Fikaris and Roger Wedgeworth miss the flashing red lights, the yellow strips of crime scene tape, and the stench of dead, bloated bodies. With little provocation, they’ll wax nostalgic about the adrenaline rush of a call in the middle of the night and the frantic, sleepless chase that follows. This, after all, is why they got into the crime-solving business in the first place. But these days the star homicide detectives from the Harris County Sheriff’s Department are using their experience to crack the toughest murders of all: the unsolved “cold cases.” As partners on the cold case squad, their job is to solve the crimes that other detectives couldn’t.

It’s a worthy challenge. In Harris County, which has the third-largest sheriff’s department in the country, nearly 450 unsolved murders remain on the books, some dating back to 1972. Even with a clearance rate of around 80 percent, the HCSD averages between fifteen to twenty unsolved homicides annually. Lieutenant Bert Diaz, a former investigator who has been with the department for more than two decades, created the unit nearly two years ago with 43-year-old Fikaris and 51-year-old Wedgeworth in mind. Though other law enforcement agencies routinely work old cases when time permits—last October, detectives from the Austin Police Department arrested four suspects in the 1991 Yogurt Shop Murders after poring over evidence and following up on old leads—the Harris County cold case squad is one of the few in the state that have officers assigned to it full-time. Diaz thought it was a necessity. “It gives the victim’s family some reassurance that their loved one is not forgotten,” he says. “It’s all about solving murders, whether they’re ten, fifteen, or twenty years old or whether they’re current.”

Working on the second floor of an old warehouse in Houston’s East End, Fikaris and Wedgeworth are separated from the rest of the 24-member homicide division by a long hallway lined with tall beige filing cabinets stuffed with nearly thirty years’ worth of unsolved murders. The overflow rests in an adjacent room, along with evidence envelopes the size of shopping bags. In both their offices is a sign with a verse from the Bible: “If a man is burdened by the blood of another, let him be a fugitive until death. Let no one help him.” Thumbtacked to the maroon divider above Wedgeworth’s desk are photographs from an unsolved homicide: two brothers, their feet tied together. A replica of the rope used, tied with the same knot, hangs on top of the gory images. On a shelf in Fikaris’ office are two rows of bullets that were used in ballistic tests. There’s also a calendar with a photo of both detectives with Danny Paul Bible, whom they tracked down for a 1979 murder. Above the photograph is the caption, “Have you hugged your serial killer today?”

Unfortunately, the Bible arrest was a rare victory for the pair. Since the division was formed, in May 1998, Fikaris and Wedgeworth have reviewed 51 cases. They have cleared only 8. As one might imagine, the older the murder, the tougher it is to solve. The first 48 to 72 hours following a homicide are considered crucial, when witnesses are easy to locate and memories are fresh. As time passes, so does the likelihood that the case will be resolved.

On the morning that I visited the detectives, Fikaris was sorting through photographs laid out all over his desk, arranging them chronologically in small, neat stacks as casually as he’d organize pictures of his beach vacation. Grisly at any hour of the day, the snapshots depict a double murder that took place in northwest Harris County more than a decade ago. Homer and JoAnna King, husband-and-wife drug dealers, were killed presumably for a few hundred dollars’ worth of dope. JoAnna, 26, was shot at close range four times to the head; Homer, 27, was shot twice. Both were murdered in the bedroom. There are pictures of bloody teeth on the carpet; a close-up of Homer’s hand, still clutching strands of his own hair; and a small white dog, hiding under the bed, that witnessed it all.

I wouldn’t say you get used to it,” says Fikaris, between sips of black coffee. “You can either do it or you can’t. There’s no in-between with this. It’s why we work so hard on these cases. Even though we’re not there, we know what it smells like.”

Wedgeworth comes in a few minutes later and sits down across from him. The contrast between them is striking. Short and stocky with combed-back red hair, Wedgeworth wears his silver Sig Sauer .357 strapped to his pressed khakis and makes no attempt to hide his constant exasperation. He clicks his gold pen when he’s anxious, which seems to be most of the time. Fikaris, on the other hand, is a favorite with criminals and victims’ families for his sympathetic ear. Long and lean with soft gray hair, he walks with a limp from an injury he received a few months ago while coaching his eleven-year-old son’s baseball team. He carries a Colt .45. Together, they seem to be Hollywood’s quintessential good cop-bad cop, a notion that isn’t lost on them.

Oh, Harry’s real calm,” groans Wedgeworth, as he thumbs through the photos. “Harry is the understanding good guy. I’m just the opposite.” Then, changing the subject and returning to business, he says abruptly, “I wish we had better pictures of the bedroom.”

Incomplete crime-scene photos mark the beginning of a case that may end up taking the detectives months to solve, if they ever do. Leads will vaporize. Witnesses will lie. And in some instances, the original detectives offer little assistance, resentful

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