First the fire department arrived, the house was largely in flames, smoke billowed into the early morning sky not far from Fort Caspar. When the fire was out, a victim was discovered. Smoking in bed? Something left on the stove during the night? An overloaded electrical outlet? No.
An X-ray revealed a bullet in the victim’s brain and no firearm was found in the burned home. Murder in June 1982 – the victim, Stan Henry, was laid to rest in a few days but his case has remains open, at least technically. Despite dogged investigation and generous rewards being offered for information, his killer has never been identified or brought to justice.
This case and sadly, many others, are part of the review being conducted by the Joint Judiciary Committee of the Wyoming legislature this month. During the interim between legislative sessions, committees meet to explore a variety of topics approved by the Management Council. The Joint Judiciary committee will, along with other topics, seek to gain an understanding of unsolved murders in Wyoming.
Assisting them will be the Murder Accountability Project (MAP), a nonprofit group organized in 2015 that is dedicated to educating Americans on the importance of accurately accounting for unsolved homicides within the United States. MAP seeks to obtain information from federal, state and local governments about unsolved homicides and to then analyze and publish the information. The Project’s Board of Directors is composed of retired law enforcement investigators, investigative journalists, criminologists and other experts on various aspects of homicide. Their website explains their mission:
America does a poor job tracking and accounting for its unsolved homicides. Every year, at least 5,000 killers get away with murder. The rate at which police clear homicides through arrest has declined over the years until, today, nearly half go unsolved.
As a result, more than 256,000 Americans have perished in unsolved homicides committed since 1980 — more than the combined death toll of all U.S. military actions since World War II. In fact, the total U.S. military fatalities during the eight-year invasion and occupation of Iraq were less than a single year of civilian losses from unsolved domestic homicides.
No one knows all the names of these victims because no law enforcement agency in America is assigned to monitor failed homicide investigations by local police departments. Even the official national statistics on murder are actually estimates and projections based upon incomplete reports by police departments that voluntarily choose (or refuse) to participate in federal crime reporting programs.
The Murder Accountability Project will share Wyoming specific data when the Joint Judiciary Committee members gather in Sheridan. In addition, the Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police, the director of the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation, a former Wyoming peace officer with extensive experience as a Seattle homicide detective, prosecutors and others will testify about the unsolved murders in our state and steps that may aid in solving some of those cases, as well as limiting the number of murders that go unsolved in the future.
While the list of unsolved murders in Wyoming is not complete, there is an even longer list of missing persons who may also be murder victims. Together, these names constitute a significant issue in Wyoming that warrants a full examination. These names identify family members, neighbors, co-workers, tourists, job seekers and folks just passing through our state who met their demise or disappeared.
A 1971 Casper Star Tribune article written by John Wheelan reported that an effort was made to learn about unsolved murders and all the police chiefs and sheriffs had been surveyed by the newspaper but many did not respond. Those that did often reported that records from bygone years were largely non-existent. Only five unsolved homicides were chronicled in that article. Few if any readers believed that number was accurate and all inclusive.
In the early 1970s the 41st session of the Wyoming legislature passed a law in an attempt to remedy the problem of crime reports being lost to history. The new directive required all crimes to be reported on forms approved by the Attorney General. The executive branch secured a $9,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to set up the reporting system.
A follow-up news article from 1975 by Joan Wheelan begins, “Attempting to find out information about unsolved homicides in Wyoming is still a frustrating exercise. But the situation is expected to improve with the state’s new uniform offense reporting system.” The new and improved reporting system became operational in 1974 and reporting of crimes had improved.
Even so, many of the smaller departments across the state were still not reporting crimes on the Attorney General’s approved forms. Investigations of these older crimes are often hampered by deficient documentation and evidence having been discarded.
More recently, the 2019 book Alice and Gerald: a Homicidal Love Story, by Wyoming’s very own Ron Franscell, depicted a decades long investigation into some Wyoming murders. The author explains how Wyoming’s vast open spaces can become a co-conspirator in hiding evidence of murder. The cold case investigation crept along as leads were followed and exhausted and then eventually, evidence began to come together.
The book included descriptions of how the DCI cold case investigators worked on this case intermittently when time allowed. The DCI agents had active current cases for which they were responsible that took priority over the cold cases. Despite the lack of continuous effort, the determined investigators pieced the case together and brought it to a successful end.
Unfortunately, the mother of one of the victims died shortly before the case was solved. After reading this excellent book, there was one obvious question, when it comes to unsolved murder cases, can we do better?
The carefully researched and professionally produced podcasts presented on Dead & Gone in Wyoming by Scott Fuller and the County 10 Cast Network detail a considerable number of known murders and disappearances that have occurred in the Equality State. Each episode reminds us of people who lost loved ones and who must rely on Wyoming officials to continue the search for the killers or the missing. The Joint Judiciary is intent on contributing to this effort.
Some of Wyoming’s unsolved murder cases are or were high profile crimes that garnered extensive news coverage in the days and weeks following the murders. Some are refreshed when podcasts or documentaries are produced about them. Others quickly slipped from memory, except for the families left behind and the officers, deputies, agents and detectives who investigated those crimes.
They never forgot the victims, the images that were seared into their memories and the frustration that grew as time passed. Many of the investigators are retired now, and some are themselves deceased. Those remaining will sometimes share with inquisitive legislators and their law enforcement successors what they recall of those old cases.
“The fire burned exceptionally hot, maybe 1400 degrees.” “There were items strewn about on the floor.” “The fire was suspicious, but we did not know for certain that we had a murder until the x-ray revealed the bullet.” “We really did not have much to go on, the victim was a loner who worked from his house.” “We worked that case hard and we did develop one suspect. He died in a car wreck in another state, who knows if he was killer.” “That was over 40 years ago and I can still remember, sometimes I wish I could forget.” “Some of these cases will never be solved, we call those God’s Cases”.
What will come of this inquiry by the Joint Judiciary Committee is yet to be decided. In addition to hearing testimony from witnesses, committee members were provided information compiled by the Legislative Service Office that describes how cold cases are worked in other states and innovative practices used by a variety of law enforcement agencies.
Perhaps statutes will be created or changed. Maybe there will be a push to improve or better fund some aspect of murder investigation in Wyoming. Systems for managing cold cases or information sharing between agencies might be revised or enhanced in some way.
Regardless, the Joint Judiciary Committee knows that there are family and friends who have lost someone dear to them and they want and deserve to have justice.
Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Bill Landen, said that he is looking forward to the work ahead during the interim on this important topic. Adding, “If there are opportunities to increase the likelihood of success when working these cases, I hope the Judiciary Committee will tackle them and help make a difference!” At this point, the members of the committee don’t know what we don’t know - but we are about to find out.
Dead and Gone in Wyoming Podcasts by Scott Fuller 10Cast Network: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/dead-gone-in-wyoming/id1474413568
The Coldest Case in Laramie Podcast: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/the-coldest-case-in-laramie/id1664273280
Wyoming DCI Cold Cases - https://wyomingdci.wyo.gov/operations/cold-cases
Retired Seattle Homicide Detective https://www.linkedin.com/in/michael-ciesynski-96892933/
Art Washut email@example.com
Rep. Art Washut is the Chairman of the Wyoming House Judiciary Committee