THURSTON COUNTY, Wash. — Solving cold cases has been a challenge for the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office.
So far, 21 cases of missing or murdered persons remained unsolved. According to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, eight sets of human remains found in Thurston County between 1981 and 2018 remain unidentified.
That is why Vivian Boheme wants to help.
After graduating with a degree in forensic genetic genealogy, Boheme contacted newly-elected Sheriff Derek Sanders to try and put her skills to work through volunteering.
“I reached out to Mr. Sanders and was just kind of like, hey, I’m a local person who just graduated as a forensic genetic genealogist, I don’t know if there’s any cold cases or any cases, because it’s not just used for cold cases, if there were any cases that we could possibly work for, or something that would possibly be interested in,” she said.
Sheriff Sanders said that while the sheriff’s office could use the help, some things need to be put in place first.
Sanders said staffing is at an all-time low in the sheriff’s office, with the agency working with only 35 of the 59 needed patrol deputies, along with multiple detective vacancies. Sanders said the depleted numbers is reflected in the services the sheriff’s office is able to provide.
“As a community, what you see is a cut in services somewhere, and it starts with the things that are less obvious to the naked eye, which is missing persons and cold cases,” he explained. “That’s the first thing that always gets cut because it’s not an emergency that right in your face. It’s a cold case. It takes time to investigate. So, unfortunately, those are the things that get cut. And then you start to see extra traffic details get cut and other parts of the department that people don’t want to see cut but they’re not emergencies, and that’s what people start to see when a sheriff’s office or police department becomes too understaffed.”
Sanders said re-filling his ranks is his No. 1 priority and wants to change the culture of the sheriff’s office to create an agency potential deputies would want to work in, which can be challenging with a limited budget.
“Police work in this state, I hate to refer to it this way, is becoming a mercenary type,” he said. “Who can offer the highest salary with the biggest signing bonus. That’s truly what it’s becoming. I mean, you got cities like Everett that’re offering almost $50,000 in incentives and bonuses to leave Thurston County and come to Everett Police Department. We offer zero.”
Boheme said that even if she can’t work within the sheriff’s office, she still plans to help the families connected to cold cases.
“Communication is key,” Boheme said. “Whether or not that’s just advocacy in and of itself, if it’s speaking to family members to try to help them understand why certain things may not be done at certain points in their investigation and where they can go for resources.”
Meanwhile, Sheriff Sanders said he wants to do more, but not at the expense of cutting corners, which means it’ll take some time.
“If I keep diverting resources away from hiring and getting full-time employees on, then we’re never gonna get to that point where we want to be where we actually have the manpower to address these things,” he said. “Because even when you have volunteer positions, you need them to be oversought. You couldn’t have a volunteer that oversees everything from start to finish. That will never be the case. The volunteer stuff is to supplant what we already have. Right now, we don’t have much.”