Crowdsourcing cold case investigations

The following interview was reported during my very brief stint as a volunteer with Assignment Zero. Under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License, it can be copied, distributed, transmitted, and adapted by anyone in accordance with the conditions specified. Of course, I’m very grateful to Tommy Ray for granting me the interview and hope many other law enforcement officers are inspired by his example.


Assignment Zero—2 April 2007—To grieving families, talking to special agent Tommy Ray, the head of the Cold Case Assessment Team and an investigator with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE), is like being delivered from a bitter Brooklyn blizzard to the warmth of Lakeland’s southern sunshine. It’s immediately obvious that he learns the crucial information that helps him solve the most complex homicide cases because he talks to people. He excels at being accessible.

Using the Internet, and any other tool available that facilitates information sharing, Ray, 55, puts the faces of homicide victims where people will see them and remember. And when someone does remember, he gets a call.

In addition to having a name that’s impossible to forget, Ray is memorable because of his success at solving old homicide cases. His website identifies Ray on a page suggesting “How to Help.” The site presents five ways to contact the Polk County (Fla.) Crime Stoppers or Ray with any information about unsolved crimes.

“I started working cold cases” the relaxed and affable Ray said, “back in 1981 or ’82 with the Polk County Sheriff’s Office.”

He formed the Cold Case Assessment Team after becoming an investigator with the FDLE. “I came up with the idea after I’d worked a quadruple-murder case,” said Ray. The team’s website was created by one of his friends on a voluntary basis and takes more time to maintain than he has free these days. “I was in trial for almost two and a half or three months last year,” Ray said, “and I probably could have found someone else [to update the site]… It’s so daggone busy!”

After a 34-year career in law enforcement, Ray intended to retire in June 2007. That is, until the trial of Nelson Serrano, 68, for the previously unsolved murders of Serrano’s former business associate and three members of another associate’s family nine years ago in Bartow, Fla. Ray’s successful investigation of the cold case gave him a sense of satisfaction that convinced him he was too young for the easy life. He said, “I’ve decided to work about three or four more years.”

An hour-long edition of CBS 48-Hours Mystery tells the story of the Serrano investigation, which was turned over to Ray after no one else could crack the murder suspect’s alibi. “This guy thought he had planned the perfect crime and almost did,” Ray said.

Serrano claimed the proof of his innocence was a surveillance video showing he was in an Atlanta, Ga., hotel on the day of the murders. Ray personally reviewed hours of the video and noticed Serrano leaving the hotel and returning, wearing the same clothing, just shy of 10 hours later. Given that information, Ray’s hunches led him to uncover Serrano’s use of a fraudulent identity to purchase airline tickets for a flight to Florida. But it took forensic evidence: Serrano’s fingerprints were on the time-stamped airport parking ticket that Ray literally dug from a pile of old records. The time stamp demonstrated Serrano was where he needed to be in order to commit the murders and return to the hotel in Atlanta in the span of time documented by the hotel security camera.

Today, minute details of the Serrano investigation, such as a license tag number on a rental car, are things Ray still can’t forget. “It’s something that I lived for 10 years.”

“He’s already been found guilty of the crime. We’re still waiting for the judge to sentence him,” said Ray of Serrano. “You know, the jury recommended the death sentence.”

“I’ve been lucky. I’ve solved, probably, about seven or eight cold cases in the last several years with the FDLE,” the white-haired investigator reflected. When asked if his coworkers had a nickname for him as a result of the intense publicity those successes and the Serrano case attracted, Ray admitted, “Hollywood.” He accepts the ribbing graciously.

Ray is comfortable interacting with representatives of the news media, including the Lakeland Ledger, which publishes information about unsolved crimes assigned to the Cold Case Assessment Team. The coverage helps to stimulate public input. After considering Assignment Zero’s collaborative web-based user interface designed for open source journalism, Ray candidly admitted, “That would be a challenge… I’m from the old school. I played football; I didn’t take typing.” Chuckling a little, he added, “If I send an email, I’m typing it with two fingers.”

The prospect of generating new interest in any of the unsolved homicides described on his website pleased the notoriously tenacious agent. Open source was how his fine instincts already led him to operate. “Maybe one of these cases could be thrown out there. And then interact as far as suggestions, you know,” he offered. Ray then elaborated on his tactics, “‘Cause it’s amazed me. Like when I have these Cold Case Assessment Team meetings, on a couple of different occasions, we had civilian non-law enforcement come to the meetings. Any type of public knowledge we can put out there, we do, and just get suggestions from the people. It’s just amazing what some of the non-law enforcement people come up with.”

Open Source

From April 4 through April 6, 2007, Ray will be in San Diego, Calif., to present an overview of the Serrano investigation to law enforcement officials at a meeting of the California Homicide Investigators Association. He’ll also be talking about working with the media and about his cold case playing cards, an effective crowdsourcing innovation he devised. Decks of the playing cards, which bear 52 photographs of the victims of unsolved homicides, have been distributed widely to Florida prison inmates. Issuance of the first edition of the cards quickly resulted in arrests, after prisoners recognized pictures on the cards and placed calls to Ray and the Cold Case Assessment Team. A second version of the playing cards, with 52 additional photographs of victims whose homicides remain mysteries, is now planned.

Ray said he hoped to continue presenting seminars on his investigative and crowdsourcing techniques to other criminal investigators. Now, law enforcement agencies in Texas, California, Missouri, and Georgia are developing their own versions of cold case playing cards. Open source investigative techniques, mused Ray, “To me, it’s not stealing ideas. It’s sharing ideas, and that’s what it’s all about.”

Law Enforcement Agency News Services: Unmediated

The FDLE website’s index of press releases permits direct access to the agency’s news releases, including information on wanted persons.

In the area of Florida around Ft. Lauderdale, the Broward Sheriff’s Office (BSO) has a similar news release feature on the front page of its website: a blog called Setting the Record Straight.

The FDLE and BSO are two examples of law enforcement agencies using their presence on the Web to ensure the public hears precisely what they have to say. Both agencies crowdsource crime fighting by disseminating information via the Internet and encouraging the public to submit tips that could lead to long-awaited breaks in difficult criminal investigations.

Related Information

Special Agent Tommy Ray of the FDLE can receive crime-related tips via email at

Read a detailed 2003 news profile of Special Agent Ray by Suzie Schottelkotte, The Ledger, Lakeland, Fla., USA.

CBS News reported on March 7, 2007, “The Ecuadorian government has launched an inquiry into the facts surrounding Nelson Serrano’s deportation to the United States in 2002.”

The interview with Special Agent Tommy Ray was conducted and reported by Robin Mizell, an Assignment Zero amateur journalist and retired police officer in Columbus, Ohio, and edited by T.T. Thomas, a former journalist voluntarily contributing to Assignment Zero from Los Angeles, Calif.

Creative Commons License
Copyright © 2007 All rights reserved. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License.

3 Replies to “Crowdsourcing cold case investigations”

  1. It was nice to re-read this again, after some time. Reminded me of what a damn good writer you are…I added a comma, maybe, if that, but you wrote a terrific piece all by yourself.

  2. You’re too modest. T.T. Quite a bit of the finished piece was written at your suggestion. How nice of you to document here that I can work with an editor. (smiling)

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