Cold case files
Butte County Sheriff’s Office takes a crack at years-old crimes, and some, like Tamara Egbert’s murder in 2000, are going to trial
In February 2000, Tamara Lynn Egbert’s body was found on the cliffs below Lookout Point. An autopsy revealed that the 41-year-old woman had been shot once in the torso.
Tamara had been reported missing by her husband, Clinton Egbert, on Feb. 11, after the couple had had an argument, he said. Her body was found eight days later, and when police asked Clinton to come in for questioning, he instead drove to his brother’s house off the Skyway.
A search warrant on the Egberts’ Chico residence and vehicles revealed a number of guns, but although Clinton Egbert was a suspect in the murder, no arrest was made.
Seven years later, almost to the day, Egbert was arrested at Antelope Creek Mobilehome Park in Los Molinos, where he was the manager. He was charged with Tamara’s murder.
Egbert’s trial starts Monday (July 21), and what it has a lot of people asking is: Why now? How could the police find more evidence seven years after her murder than when it happened?
As it turns out, the Egbert case is no anomaly. So-called cold cases are cracked regularly these days, due in large part to advances in science and technology.
A breakthrough in cataloging DNA evidence has been a major help to local law enforcement. The Butte County Sheriff’s Office, for example, uses a database called CODIS (Combined DNA Index System), developed by the Department of Justice. The database combines samples from convicted criminals all over the United States and even the world, in some cases, and makes them searchable. So, when a crime is committed and DNA evidence is gathered, it is put into the system and searched against all those on file.
These days even the method of gathering DNA evidence is simplified. Years ago, when blood was required, law enforcement had to get a warrant to take a sample. Now officers are equipped with plastic gloves, two long Q-tips and a plastic vial to store them in after swabbing a person’s cheek.
According to the FBI Web site, there are nearly 1 million offender profiles on file in California, and the CODIS database has aided 6,500 investigations in the state.
Rape is a prime example of a crime that often leaves DNA evidence—and often is committed by someone who will reoffend. Another benefit of the DNA database is that it can link crimes, even when the suspect is unknown. When that person gets convicted of another rape, or any felony or misdemeanor sex crime, he will become linked to the previous crime.
One case that’s particularly memorable for Butte County Sheriff’s Detective Tom Dryden involved the brutal rape several years ago of an elderly woman. No suspect was arrested at the time. But recently, a match came up via CODIS to a man who had gone to prison for beating a man to death in Plumas County.
“I told the victim, and she was so relieved,” Dryden said. “She hadn’t slept in six or seven years.”
Science isn’t the only thing that changes over time. Testimony, too, can change. Oftentimes a DNA match will prompt investigators to reopen a cold case, at which time they review reports, interview the original officers, and start the witness-interviewing process from scratch.
“When someone’s committed a homicide and hasn’t been caught, they tend to talk about it,” said Butte County Sheriff’s Detective Sgt. Steven Pelton. “Some people start to become comfortable, and typically they’ve told someone. It’s a big event in their life.”
The person who hears about the murder may be a new girlfriend or a buddy after a long night at the bar. In either case, relationships change. Girlfriends become exes and friends drift apart, and sometimes those people who may have been very loyal at one time aren’t anymore.
That’s why interviews are so important, Dryden said. He particularly likes to contact the officers who originally investigated the case. Sometimes information that didn’t seem relevant at the time, such as the make of a car, can turn into a lead years later.
“Some cases need to mature,” Pelton said. “I’ve seen cold cases going places, where in the past they were pipe dreams. When a witness comes forward, now we can couple their testimony with DNA—and it’s much easier for us.”
In fact, the Sheriff’s Office has about 38 cold cases on file, which they routinely go through once a year. Pelton said he believed six or seven might be solved in the next year, which is a stark contrast to the one every year or two they used to crack as recently as six or seven years ago.
But both officers, along with Detective Eric Christopher, who is in the Special Victims Unit with Dryden, were quick to mention that DNA has almost become a buzz word.
“We lost a jury trial because the defense kept bringing up DNA,” Dryden said. “But the case had nothing to do with DNA. It just makes it easier to decide as a juror.”
“I have a murder case where there were 37 witnesses,” Christopher added, “and they’re asking for DNA! We call it ‘the CSI effect.’ People want to see cool stuff.”
The detectives couldn’t get into specifics as to why the Sheriff’s Office decided to arrest Clinton Egbert last year, as they didn’t want to interfere with the upcoming trial. What Pelton could say was: “In the Egbert case, it was a combination of science and testimony.”
The Chico Enterprise Record reported at the time of Egbert’s arrest that when a forensic pathologist looked over the autopsy report, it was determined that Tamara had been shot twice instead of once. Perhaps that’s the scientific evidence Pelton referred to; perhaps there’s more.
What we do know is that, if Clinton Egbert did kill his wife on a February night in 2000, he probably told somebody about it. But only the trial will tell.
“The whole family is glad that this is finally taking place,” said Jeffrey Valentine, Tamara’s brother. “We’re finally going to get some closure on what happened.”