Editor's note: This is the second installment of a series of stories relating to cold cases throughout Howard County. Some date back to the early-1980s, and police believe all are solvable. Today: Janet Yeary.
Kokomo Police Department Det. Scott Purtee was on a hunting trip near Mississinewa when he got a call from a fellow officer on the department.
“He said, ‘I think we have a murder,’” Purtee recalled the other officer saying. “I said ‘OK, how?’ He said it appeared like a beating. … I remember it like it was yesterday.”
It was Black Friday, Nov. 26, 2004, the day Kokomo resident Janet Yeary, 51, was found beaten to death in her north side residence.
According to Tribune archives and interviews with police, Yeary was to have Thanksgiving dinner with her daughter the day before, but she never showed up.
“She [daughter] is worried about why she couldn’t get a hold of her mother after calling her several times,” KPD Capt. Teresa Galloway said. “She uses the key, goes into the house and finds her mom on the floor. … And she knew immediately that something tragic had happened.”
A 1971 Tipton High School graduate, Yeary had worked for C & B Optical One in Kokomo for 16 years, her obituary noted. She also enjoyed spending time with her granddaughter, being outdoors, spending time on her computer and listening to music.
And then in one fleeting moment, it was all gone.
Preliminary reports ruled Yeary’s death a homicide, as reports indicated signs of a struggle. Police also believe that Yeary did not know her attacker, and further investigation led authorities to believe she answered the door and allowed the suspect into her residence to make a phone call.
And though archived reports claim witnesses told police they reportedly saw a white vehicle leave the area at a high rate of speed around the same time the incident occurred, no arrests have been made in the case.
The investigation into Yeary’s death is one of several cold cases that still grip Howard County, and police hope that new technology and advancements in forensic science can eventually close the book on the investigation for good.
“We have one of the best computer labs, if not the best, in the state,” Purtee said. “So now we’re into that realm, but with DNA, back when I first became a detective, you had to have enough blood that you could swab it with a Q-tip and get the swab completely red for them to pull a profile.”
These days, Purtee noted, police can extract DNA from dinosaur bones, strands of hair and items that people wear or touch.
“So the key is for us in a case like this, we go back through the evidence list and see what items were not suitable for DNA back then and resubmit,” Purtee stated, “which seems so easy, but when you’re going through 5,000 pages of reports, it’s not that easy. To go through a page of every single report and pull out what we think is important now is so time-consuming. We do it as we have time.”
Galloway reiterated Purtee’s point, even noting that she wishes KPD could have a team of officers who would work primarily on these long-standing unsolved cases.
“A lot of physical evidence was collected in this case, and certain pieces were sent to the lab. ... It just takes time," Galloway said. "My dream would be to have a cold case team which would do nothing but follow stuff up and could travel and go to where they needed to go to get stuff. … This can be solved. So put some eyes back on this.”
Both Galloway and Purtee admitted that time is definitely the enemy when it comes to investigations, and the more time that passes, the more difficult and muddied the road can get.
But the two also stressed the importance of fresh eyes on a case, something which Galloway herself has been able to do in regard to Yeary’s death. Because Galloway was not an active participant on the case at the time, she said she just recently poured through the report and discovered some areas that she’s excited to investigate.
“As crime scene technicians, they have to go through the entire house, and not knowing anything, you can miss some evidence because you photograph it and document it, but you’re not understanding how it’s significant,” Galloway said. “Fresh eyes [are beneficial] because you as a case agent, you have a lot of people doing a lot of things, and then you’re getting copies of their supplements of what they did. You get going down a path or interviewing people and get stuck in one area.”
But when you read a cold case report for possibly the first time, Galloway noted, little details begin to emerge that even detectives who have processed a scene for several hours might have missed.
“My eyes are fresh to this because I wasn’t involved in this case,” she said. “So when I read this, the names that I’m reading that start sticking in my head, I’m like, ‘Oh, I remember that. Did they follow up with this?' When you’re compiling up names, it’s easy for things to slip through the cracks.”
“The best analyzing I’ve ever been able to do at crime scenes is when I’m not a part of them,” he said. “You look at the pictures and the diagrams because it’s all new to you. It’s the same thing with these reports. When you work on the case, you become so engrossed in it that there may be that one little piece that you either kind of just glance over it or read it and think it means nothing [at the time]."
That’s one of the reasons why units at larger agencies will often rotate officers, Purtee said, so that there are always new eyes on any particular case.
“It only takes one person to say, ‘Well, what about this?'” Purtee noted. “And that’s the missing piece of evidence that no one thought was important, but it becomes what breaks the case wide open.”
And when it comes to Yeary’s case in particular, police admitted they have come a long way in solving the puzzle. But like every other cold case, there is still a missing piece.
If you have information that can solve Janet Yeary’s death, contact the KPD Hotline at 765-456-7017.