GBI to Form New Cold Case Unit
On Friday, April 28, Governor Brian Kemp signed the Coleman-Baker Act, named for the famous unsolved murders of Rhonda Sue Coleman, of Hazlehurst, and Tara Louise Baker, of Athens, into law. This act will create a new unit within the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) for the reinvestigation of cold case murders.
The bill was carried by State Representative Bill Werkheiser, who represents Tattnall, Evans, Appling, and Jeff Davis Counties. Werkheiser explained that the effort to establish this bill began last year, when his bill to create a study committee on cold case homicides passed the House of Representatives, but failed in the Senate.
Werkheiser remained persistent to the cause. He later had the families of Baker and Coleman join him in a meeting with former GBI Director Vic Reynolds. “It was a very good meeting,” he said. “It was very emotional, but it was a very good meeting.” At the time of the meeting, the GBI had six volunteer agents, who gave their time when they were able to assist in the investigation of cold cases. Now, with the $5 million that has been designated for this new GBI unit in the budget, there will be permanent employees at the GBI continued from page
whose sole purpose is to work on the investigation of cold case homicides.
“I didn’t realize until I got into the work for this bill that there are over 500 cold cases in Georgia — and that is just the ones we know of,” Werkheiser remarked. “These families need closure.”
This new legislation will allow individuals to apply for the full reinvestigation of cold case murders that have been inactive for at least six years. To be eligible for this full reinvestigation, the cases must have occurred on or before January 1, 1970, been previously investigated by an agency, and remain unsolved or without determination of a likely perpetrator.
After receiving the application for reinvestigation of a case from the victim’s immediate family or designated applicant, the head of the agency who previously investigated the case will review it to determine if reinvestigation could bring identification of probative investigative leads or the determination of a likely suspect.
Some aspects of the case that may be reviewed are: if details or aspects may have been missed in the previous investigation; if all appropriate forensic tests were done on the physical evidence; if additional testing should be done on the physical evidence; if witnesses should be reinterviewed. Also, agents will update the data with the most current investigative standards to see the extent that it would help to develop probative leads.
“DNA evidence alone makes a huge difference in these cases over time,” Werkheiser said. “Being able to use the testing we have now with the evidence from the past really has a chance at bringing out new information.”
During the full reinvestigation process, a new investigator will be assigned to lead the effort, as the bill states that the investigator that led the initial investigation cannot lead the reinvestigation. The goal of the reinvestigation is to discover some previously unidentified probative leads or to determine a likely suspect through the review of evidence and analysis of case files.
If the full reinvestigation does not have productive outcomes at its conclusion, then the case must wait at least five years until being reinvestigated for a second time, unless significant new evidence is available.
This legislation also allows coroners and medical examiners to issue death certificates on homicide victims without giving a specific cause of death or manner of homicide to allow families to receive death benefits and probate anything that may be appropriate.
According to Werkheiser, this provision is also important to the families of these victims, as he shared that it took 10 years for the Baker family to gain a death certificate on Tara. “These certificates are necessary for a number of things after someone dies, and these families can’t handle these things until they have them,” he added.
These initial death certificates may be issued before the case is closed; once the investigation is complete, the coroner or medical examiner has six months to file an amended death certificate with the official cause of death.
The new legislation also requires the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia to establish and maintain a case tracking system and a searchable public website for data on these cold cases.
The data available is to include the number of applications for reinvestigations, current extensions on reinvestigations and the reasoning for those extensions, the number of reinvestigations that have been open and closed, and statistical information on the aggregate number of cold cases, suspects, arrests, indictments, and convictions.
Local Legislative Reactions
Local legislators Senator Blake Tillery and State Representative Leesa Hagan commented on this new law.
“This is a piece of legislation that we worked on last year, and I’m so glad we were able to get it passed this year,” Hagan emphasized. “Families that have lost a loved one under horrific circumstances deserve answers and closure. The Coleman-Baker Act will push authorities to review cold case murders, applying new technological advancements in the hopes of bringing criminals to justice. It’s the right thing to do for Georgia families.”
Tillery shared similar sentiments. “I know this is something the Coleman family has fought for many years to see, and I’m proud Representative Werkheiser and others were able to get it through the legislative process,” he remarked. About the Coleman & Baker Cases Coleman
Rhonda Sue Coleman, 18, never returned to her home in Jeff Davis County on a May night in 1990, after having attended a party with her senior class in anticipation of their upcoming graduation. That night, one of Coleman’s friends discovered her car still running by the side of the road, her purse still sitting in the passenger seat, and her footprints leading from her vehicle to the tracks of an unidentified vehicle.
Coleman was found deceased three days later in Montgomery County; she had been murdered and her body burned to hide the evidence.
Since then, the Coleman family has experienced an endless maze of confusion: the case had dozens of suspects, but no one was ever found to be guilty. The case has continued to be unsolved and was most recently popularized again through the Fox Hunter podcast.
Tara Louise Baker, 23, was only one day shy of her 24th birthday when she was found dead in her Athens apartment on January 19, 2001.
The Athens-Clarke County Fire Department responded to the residence at 11:20 a.m. that January day where they found heavy smoke and flames coming from a corner of the apartment. Upon arriving at the residence, firefighters found a back bedroom and adjacent bathroom locked. They kicked in both doors, and after extinguishing the fire, found Baker’s body on the bedroom floor.
After further investigation, the fire was determined to be intentionally set, and Baker’s death was declared a homicide, as she had been beaten, stabbed, strangled, and possibly sexually assaulted. The case has never been solved but has also risen to popularity amongst true crime fans through the Classic City Crime podcast.