BAZETTA - As Detective Joe Sofchek revisits a 21-year-old unsolved homicide case, he said he intends to examine books of police records and coroner's reports with "fresh eyes and a new perspective."
Sofchek said he doesn't view the fact that he wasn't one of the initial officers to investigate the shooting death of John M. McCulley as a minus. Rather, it could prove to be a plus.
"It's not that the people investigating the case weren't doing a good job or anything. But sometimes when you bring in a new set of eyes, start all over again, go back to the beginning, you might see things that weren't originally seen. You just might catch something. At least that's what I'm hoping for."
Sofchek didn't join the Bazetta police department until 10 years after McCulley's body was found in October 1992.
McCulley's homicide is one that has continued to trouble investigators, Sofchek included. He intends to use investigative techniques recently addressed during a two-day course at the Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation office in Ridgefield.
McCulley, 34, of Warren, was the manager of the All Souls Cemetery in Bazetta. He was reported missing Sept. 26, 1992, by his girlfriend after he failed to return home from work.
His partially decomposed body was found by a hunter in a wooded area behind a maintenance building on the cemetery grounds. He had been shot five times in the chest with what appeared to be a 9 mm handgun.
Police believe he was reported missing. Initial reports indicated a pickup truck and Cadillac arrived at the cemetery, and there were conflicting reports as to whether McCulley left the cemetery with the two men in the vehicles.
"This is definitely a case where I know I'll have to go back to the very beginning and start from scratch, look at everything as if the investigation is brand new,'' Sofchek said.
''At the same time, you have to do that knowing that some of the people police first spoke to have moved from the area, some have died, memories can fade or change or get cloudy. It's hard to say where some of these people even are.
''In this particular case there were so many players and so many people questioned. There's been so much speculation and mystery," he said.
Police have re-opened the case file several times. In 2008, former Bazetta police Chief Charles Sayers talked about hiring a consultant to investigate two cold cases in the township, including McCulley's.
The other involves skeletal remains found in July 2006 in a wetland area at Mosquito Creek Reservoir near an intake of Warren's water treatment plant on Warren Meadville Road. All investigators knew was that the remains were of a roughly 50-year-old black man who stood 5-foot-8.
Sofchek is revisiting both cases. He reopened the files on McCulley's case a few months ago, but just now started to pore over the vast amount of material from earlier investigation notes, charts, reports and evidence.
Because the case remains open, he said he cannot discuss details of the investigation except to say there are a lot of unanswered questions and conflicting information inside the files.
"It really is mind-boggling," he said. "It seems like we get so far and get stuck and it goes cold again."
Just over 10 years ago, investigators reviewed the McCulley after obtaining some new physical evidence. That coupled with advances in forensic and DNA testing not available to them in the decade after the homicide motivated police to take another look.
Police also enlisted the assistance of Trumbull County Forensic Pathologist Dr. Humphrey Germaniuk, who has experience in cold-case files. Evidence was examined by BCI at its then-new laboratory in Ridgefield.
Sofchek said he has been reviewing the physical evidence to see whether anything can be resubmitted to the BCI crime lab.
"This case is going to take some time,'' he said. ''Right now it's a matter of getting everything organized from the very first incident report to where it was left off.''
He and police Chief Mike Hovis hope the strategies he learned in the BCI course helps move the process along a little faster. Although Sofchek had completed homicide investigation courses, he had never been before taken one that focused on homicide cold cases. He completed the cold case course last month with McCulley in mind.
For example, he said in he class he was reminded to consider that circumstances, and people, change.
"There are things you run into. Stories change, players change. Sometimes people are more open later on," he said.
Police have said they cannot pinpoint a clear motive. McCulley had no criminal record. And so far, police have had no major suspects in the case.
"It's definitely a challenge. But as much as it is that is it also something that has been unresolved far too long. It deserves another look and another after that if necessary," Sofchek said.