A Pawtucket Detective is Using a Provocative Tool to Solve Cold Cases
Sue Cormier has a passion for solving previously unsolvable crimes.
“From there, my passion for cold cases grew,” Cormier says. “I looked at old photographs, interviewed people, talked to other detectives about it.”
In March of 2018, she spoke with superiors about starting a cold case unit, and her idea of using a deck of victim cards as a way to trigger old memories, as she’d seen done in other places. The command staff gave her the go-ahead.
“We gave her the leeway and resources and said ‘take the ball. If you can make it happen, make it happen,’ ” says Pawtucket Police Chief Tina Goncalves. “She made it happen.”
One way she did, Goncalves says, was finding a tiny space in Pawtucket City Hall to make her own, away from the twenty-person detective unit at the police station, an indication of Cormier’s drive. And the community is noticing, the chief says. One day while Goncalves was off duty in a local store, a woman approached her.
“She told me her niece was in that deck of cards and she was grateful,” Goncalves says. “Sue’s tenacious, and her determination will make her successful. There is no doubt cases will be solved.”
Ryan Backmann started the Project: Cold Case database in Florida in 2015 a few years after his father was murdered in 2009. It is a case that remains one of Florida’s 15,000 unsolved homicides. Cormier reached out to his organization and they’ve stayed in contact. He cites her compassion as a key to her motivation, saying that many cops stay detached and compartmentalized from the victims and families.
“Sue is so balanced, she understands how important these cases are and that the families deserve answers,” Backmann says. “I’m impressed with her commitment, the cards, embracing the media, not things law enforcement is usually comfortable with. She’s proactive, going on TV, distributing the cards. She’s taken it up a notch and raised the bar. Rhode Island and victims’ families are lucky to have her.”
Cormier’s modesty and desire to be no better than anyone else sticks out, says Cumberland Detective Peter Sweet, a member of the Cold Case Task Force.
“She’s very even keeled; she’s been on the job more than twice as long as I have but she never comes off as ‘I’ve done this longer than you, come talk to me when you’ve been at this as long’ — that air that some have,” Sweet says. “She doesn’t have to be tough; she has a commanding presence. It’s not intimidation, it’s the professional way she carries herself.”
Dr. David Keatley is an international consultant in criminal investigations, cold cases and behavioral profiling in Australia. He and Cormier met at a conference in Boston and became kindred investigative spirits and peers. Keatley comes to Rhode Island several times a year to attend conferences and seminars with her, when Cormier says they turn her family’s living room into a war room, spreading out photos and evidences from cold cases to discuss.
“She and her task force are so focused and eager to take in advice, like maybe something they missed,” Keatley says. “I’ve worked with many in law enforcement who aren’t like that. Here, they want to hear what you have to say even if they don’t agree with it.”
The technology used in finding the bad guys from cold cases has improved considerably over the years, and Cormier constantly studies changes to keep up to the new-school ways. But her initial approach is decidedly old school.
At a talk she and Keatley give at URI on forensics, she describes reopening old cases, of “taking my allergy pill, putting my jeans on and going into the musty basement of city halls” to peruse old records, evidence, photos, case files and newspaper clippings, putting all into individual cold-case binders in “cookie cutter fashion, the same way, so any detective can open the file and read it like a novel, with solvability factor, reviews of evidence and witness statements.”
On her wish list of new-school crime-solving equipment is a state-of-the-art M-Vac DNA testing machine that’s 200 times more powerful than traditional machines. She’s raised some $4,000 towards the price tag of $44,000, she says, “about the cost of a police cruiser.” “If each of the state’s thirty-nine communities kicks in $1,000 each, we’ll be there” for the benefit of Rhode Island’s collective crime-fighting efforts.
Cormier’s approach, using social media and getting one case a week from the deck highlighted on Friday afternoons on WPRI-TV news, is also new school. It puts her “at the forefront in terms of promotion and using these tools, so much so other states are looking at it. It’s an incredible idea, a brilliant way of getting information out.
“It’s a huge responsibility she takes on, this weight of hope,” Keatley says. “It’s a beautiful thing to give to families, a little hope. But with that comes the responsibility of never being able to rest.”
As open as Cormier is about her work life, she’s equally closed about her private one, given the criminal world she probes and the chance of someone in that world seeking revenge.
“I like to hit the heavy bag; it works out frustrations and helps me think,” says Cormier, who is fifty and was once a bodybuilder.
All she allows about her non-cop life is: “I’m very happily married with three kids involved in sports. We travel a lot, that keeps me sane along with a good support system at home.”
Which, she says about the framed deck of cards on her office wall, “makes me realize how fortunate I am not to be on that board.”
Wendy Madden, the murder victim who inspired Cormier’s cold-case work, is the nine of hearts in the deck. She left her Central Falls house on March 11, 1991, to get cigarettes and never returned. Two days later, her body was found behind a bar, Jan’s Place.
One gray fall day, I sit with Cormier in an unmarked cruiser on Middle Street, a lawn now where once stood Jan’s Place, a tiny gin mill in an industrial cluster of bars, scrap yards and old mill buildings that still dot the gritty urban landscape. I ask what goes through her mind when she visits places where cold cases were borne out of brutal deaths.
“I’ll come and stand, stare, think,” she says. “It’s personal. Wendy’s picture is on my desk. Like with all the victims, I want to know about her life, her Christmases, her childhood, her birthdays.”
We drive around, stopping at various old crime scenes. John Leatherwood, king of diamonds, worked in Mayor Vincent Cianci’s office, a well-liked, well-dressed man who was stabbed to death, likely a hate crime, she says, his body dumped behind one of the fireplaces used by families barbecuing on summer afternoons in Pawtucket’s Veteran’s Park.
We drive on. Donna Tattersall, queen of spades, sexually assaulted, strangled, her body found one August day in 1979 behind 67 Park Place in Pawtucket. Carl Seebeck, king of hearts, shot to death on Broadway in Pawtucket, on his usual walk to a bus stop to get to work in Providence. Jocelyn McCready, eight of clubs, her body found wrapped in a tarp in the middle of Grand Avenue, Pawtucket, beaten, strangled and pregnant.
I ask specifics of the cases, but Cormier is politely tight lipped, revealing nothing. She can’t share information even with families, which is hard, she says, because she puts herself in their place as a mother, a sister, a daughter, a spouse, she knows they want and need to know, but recognizes she cannot jeopardize the investigation by giving out information they might spill in all innocence. “It’s so hard, you know this is so important to them, but I can’t tell them. I just say, ‘You have to trust me,’ and I like to think they can see it in my eyes,” says Cormier, frustration and empathy in her voice. “We’ve gained ground, I tell them. It’s all I can do. It’s all I can tell them. It’s hard.”
Sue Anthony is sixty, born a dozen years after her aunt, Rita Bouchard, was savagely slain in 1947. Bouchard, then seventeen, is the oldest case in the deck. Anthony lived thirty-eight years in Rhode Island, but moved to South Carolina. Occasionally she’d Google her aunt’s name to see if anything was new. When she happened on Cormier’s work, she reached out. Cormier reached back. Anthony made the trip back home to meet the detective.
“I hugged her so hard, she hugged me,” Anthony says. “You talk about people who care; that’s Detective Cormier, she’s so kind and gracious. I’m not a stalker but I told her ‘I’ll follow you forever.’ She’s the real deal.”
Patrice Morris is the kid sister of Lauren Morris, the ten of hearts, who was found floating in Spectacle Pond in Cranston in 1988. Patrice was twelve at the time, Lauren, eighteen, the family living in Bristol. “We were close as sisters could be with that age difference,” Morris says. “Her smile lit up a room. I looked up to her, she was the most beautiful girl in the world.”
She’d been raped, knocked out and dumped into the pond, where she drowned, her sister says. Her family was destroyed, she says. She disliked cops “very strongly after my sister’s murder, there were so many inconsistencies with them. But Sue came along and restored my faith in the police. She is a great human being.”
Cormier checks in with her every so often, as she does with all victims’ families. There’s hope for solving her sister’s murder, Morris says, if only a little.
“Over the years, you start resigning yourself to the fact there may never be an outcome,” she says. “And then people like Sue come along and you get your head going again and think maybe there will be.”
Cormier and I drive by a school in Central Falls, where in 1988, Michelle Norris was last seen in the playground with her brothers and other kids. The playground was in view of her grandmother’s house just down the road. She went missing; two days later, her body was found in a heavily wooded area 1,500 feet from the school. The playground now bears the forever-seven-year-old’s name and likeness. The same likeness that’s on the queen of diamonds gracing Cormier’s deck of cards.
We park near the spot the girl was found, a steep hill leading to a swampy area littered with tires and other urban detritus. Jammed in a rectangular window of a nearby worn tenement in this hardscrabble neck of the urban woods is a glimmer of optimism on a small sign reading “Laugh. Love. Live.”
The longer a crime goes unsolved, the more likely it never will be. Cases can grow very cold as the years wear on. Looking down at the spot where the little girl’s body was found, Cormier talks about it. She seems both energized by the possibility of looking for the answer and drained by the burden of finding it.
I ask how she goes on, knowing the chances of resolving fifty-two cold cases in the deck of cards are slim. She smiles and talks about her love of Pawtucket and her work and her passion. “I’ve got a lot left to do.”