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Disbanding of Syracuse cold case unit means longer odds for victims’ families

Terry Cornell

It’s been 47 years since Terry Cornell was found murdered in Syracuse but her sister, Robin Cornell Gushlaw, is still waiting for answers.

“To this day you still wonder is it someone we knew,” she said. “Could it have been that person? You go back and think.”

She’s not alone.

The Syracuse Police Department’s files include more than 100 cold cases, 85 of which are unsolved homicides – cases are designated as cold cases after five years. Roughly half are more than 20 years old and about a dozen are from the 1960s and 1970s. The oldest dates to 1952.

Chief Joseph Cecile
Chief Joseph Cecile

But for Gushlaw and other families of homicide victims, the odds of detectives solving these crimes plummeted when the department quietly disbanded its cold case unit in 2021. Disbanding the unit happened partially through attrition. One person retired and wasn’t replaced, and eventually another person was promoted. The remaining detective was reassigned.

“Clearly without a unit focusing on it 24 hours a day, seven days a week, having it be their job to do that, you will see diminishing returns,” said Chief Joseph Cecile.

The decision to disband the unit, which Cecile said he wasn’t happy with, was the result of staffing shortages. Syracuse, like police departments across the country, has struggled to recruit new officers amid a tight labor market and an era of greater scrutiny of police.

As the flow of recruits has dwindled, the department hasn’t been able to make good its losses due to retirements and has struggled to meet minimum staffing for its patrol shifts. Syracuse has about 375 officers but would need to hire nearly 50 more to reach its budgeted strength of 423 officers. Cecile said he would readily reinstitute the cold case unit if staffing levels improved.

“It’s disappointing to say this to you, but it doesn’t look promising,” he said.

The cold case unit was formed during the administration of Gary Miguel, who served as chief from 2005-2009, after some of his detectives suggested that it would be beneficial to have detectives who could focus on old cases in the hope of bringing closure to victims’ families.

“They were very high-level detectives that started their day and ended it by looking at cold cases,” Cecile said. “There was nothing glamorous about it.”

Two detectives and a sergeant pored over cases, searching for new clues. They scoured reports, re-interviewed witnesses and hunted for missed leads or leads that weren’t sufficiently tracked down at the time, anything to move the case forward. They sent old DNA evidence for testing in the hope that new technology might shake something loose.

Syracuse Police Department since 1848

It was tedious work but the unit managed to solve an average of a case a year, including the high-profile homicide of Colleen Meadow, whose estranged husband was convicted of her murder more than 30 years later thanks to advances in DNA technology.

Cecile said the department hasn’t given up on its cold cases, which are still assigned to detectives, and would like to solve all of the open cases for both the victims and their families.

“I can’t think of anything worse that can happen to a person than to be killed,” he said. “And then the second worst thing, to have family members that are waiting for some kind of closure.”

Gushlaw, who now lives in Cicero, was 15 years old at the time of her sister’s murder. It was her first experience with death and it cast a pall over her family as they waited for months, then years and finally decades for the killer to be brought to justice.  

“It’s been my whole adult life and it’s definitely impacted every aspect of all of our lives,” she said. “It’s definitely something I wish we could get answers to.”

On Sunday Sept. 7, 1975, Cornell’s body was found lying in a culvert in the 100 block of McDonald Road, near Corcoran High School. She’d been choked and stabbed. The 20-year-old left a bar in the Elmwood neighborhood around 3:15 a.m. that day and was last seen alive walking on Glenwood Avenue.

Gushlaw’s family had moved to Tipperary Hill earlier in the year and Cornell had just recently moved back home. Gushlaw said Cornell and their brother had gone to an engagement party and that when she didn’t come home the family assumed she had gone with friends.

Gushlaw remembers her mother becoming hysterical when the family received the news about Cornell. From there it was mayhem. The police and coming in and out of their home. They tapped the phone line. Cornell’s purse hadn’t been found, so Gushlaw had to look at purses to give police an idea of what it looked like. And the funeral happened on Gushlaw’s 16th birthday.

“Whenever September comes up, it’s fresh,” she said. “It all comes flooding back.”

Stone Throwers Monument Tipperary Hill
Stone Throwers Monument “Tipp” Hill

Detectives, who have several suspects in Cornell’s murder, have continued working on the case over the years, including having old evidence tested for DNA.

Cecile said each cold case is still assigned to a detective who revisits it from time to time and will follow up on any new leads. Detectives meet with families on certain anniversaries to talk with them about the case and assure them it hasn’t been forgotten.

“We haven’t just put it in a file cabinet and are never going to look at it again,” Cecile said.

He also acknowledged that cold cases won’t receive the same attention as they once did, simply because the detectives assigned to the cases have a regular caseload to work on.

“But the flip side of that is we need detectives focusing on the more current ones so they don’t end up being open cases a month, two months or a year down the road,” Cecile said.

He said the department’s homicide squad, formed in 2017, has had a closure rate in recent years of more than 80%, well above the national average.

While it’s important to have enough detectives investigating homicides early on when they’re most likely to be solved, neglecting cold cases is a poor strategy long-term, said Joseph Giacalone, a retired NYPD sergeant who oversaw cold cases and teaches at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

“You never want to see your cold case unit being disbanded, no matter how much of a personnel issue that you’re dealing with,” he said.

When a police department has lots of open homicides, it leaves criminals on the streets who can then commit new crimes, Giacalone said, especially in cases dealing with drug or gang violence.

“They need to come up with a better plan on how to deal with their resources other than just disbanding a unit that actually could provide some relief for you in regards to future shootings and homicides,” he said.

Cold cases are very difficult to solve and require a long-term investigation, Giacalone said. It’s unrealistic to expect the department’s detectives, who already have their own cases and are likely overburdened, to take on even more work.

“They won’t have the time for it and they certainly won’t have the enthusiasm for it,” he said.

Gushlaw believes not having a dedicated cold case unit will hinder progress on unsolved homicides, including her sister’s. Her mother and father have died and of the family’s seven children, only three are still alive.

Although detectives have worked on her case on and off over the years, Gushlaw said she hasn’t heard from anyone at the police department in about four years. Still, she’s hopeful her sister’s murder might be solved someday, either from advances in DNA technology or someone coming forward with information.

 “We would definitely love to get some kind of resolution,” she said. “It doesn’t go away, ever.”

Anyone with information about a cold case can contact the Syracuse Police Department at 315-442-5234 or coldcasesquad@syracusepolice.org.


Syracuse Stage presents: Our Town

Syracuse Stage 820 E. Genesee Street, Syracuse, NY

Thornton Wilder American Classic, Our Town, Up Next at Syracuse Stage, Production Features Syracuse-Based Actor Jim True-Frost from HBO’s The Wire, Boardwalk Empire “The life of a village against the […]

Syracuse Stage presents: Our Town

Syracuse Stage 820 E. Genesee Street, Syracuse, NY

Thornton Wilder American Classic, Our Town, Up Next at Syracuse Stage, Production Features Syracuse-Based Actor Jim True-Frost from HBO’s The Wire, Boardwalk Empire “The life of a village against the […]

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