Expert detective coaxed from retirement to solve cold cases

Former Richland police Captain Al Wehner, left, and Kennewick Police Chief Ken Hohenberg look over cold cases Thursday.

KENNEWICK, Wash. - A single sheet of white paper with the names of nine people and their corresponding case numbers rested in front of Ken Hohenberg in his corner office atop the Kennewick police station.

Although some of the cases are nearly four decades old, the names on the list have never traveled far from the mind or heart of the longtime police chief.

There’s Carole Tyler and Cassandra Ray, two women murdered 25 years apart. There’s Sofia Juarez, a 4-year-old girl who mysteriously vanished in 2003 while walking to the store. And three infants whose deaths are considered suspicious.

Each one represents a puzzle yet to be solved.

In an effort to provide closure and answers to families, Hohenberg has coaxed former Richland police Capt. Al Wehner, an expert investigator known for his meticulous ways, out of retirement to try and crack the cold cases.

“(Families) have hope that there will be resolution to their cases,” Hohenberg said. “We are the only people that can do that for them.”

Throughout the years, Hohenberg has made it a personal mission to dedicate manpower to continue investigating unsolved homicides, he said. The strategy has paid off, as the department has managed to break open three previously unsolved murders dating back to 1978.

With the help of DNA testing, police arrested two men for the murders of Rose Baugh, 25, and Laurie Harm, 16. DNA also helped police identify a suspect in the murder of Lisa Martini, 18.

Baugh was strangled to death in 1982 inside her Kennewick apartment. DNA tested in 2011 helped link Baugh’s former boyfriend, Jack Welch, to the slaying. Welch, who was severely disabled when he was charged, was ultimately found not competent to stand trial.

Harm was stabbed to death in 1989 at her home and in 1998 police matched blood found at the scene to Jose Rodriguez Medrano. The Pasco man was eventually sentenced to 19 years in prison for the murder.

In 2003, police named King Arthur Bradford as the suspect who stabbed Martini to death back in 1978, though Bradford died of a heroin overdose in 2001. Convicted serial killer Henry Lee Lucas originally confessed to the crime, but evidence tested in 2003 proved Bradford was the real killer.

Now, Hohenberg is hoping to have more success solving the department’s greatest mysteries with the well-respected Wehner leading the charge.

After Wehner was named a detective sergeant in the mid-1990s, he became the primary investigator on five homicides over 10 years. Wehner managed to help get convictions in all of the cases.

“If you want a case squared away or looked at, Al is the guy,” said Kennewick Cmdr. Chris Guerrero, who oversees detectives. “He is the guy.”

Hohenberg approached Wehner as the officer neared retirement about the possibility of becoming a special investigator for the department. The chief wanted a well-organized, experienced detective to fill the first-of-its kind role, which is funded by the voter-approved public safety sales tax.

It’s the first time the department has ever had a special investigator to looking into unsolved cases, Hohenberg said.

Wehner, who started in April, is contracted with the department through 2016 and is currently tasked solely with investigating the cold cases. He is set to earn $15,000 a year for his time.

“He’s not doing this to make money,” Hohenberg said.

One of Wehner’s highest-profile cases was his work as part of a team that helped solve the 20-year-old murder of single mother Vicki Bridges, 26, who was beaten with a two-by-four and raped during a 1979 burglary. She was killed as her children slept nearby.

Police eventually matched the DNA of Brian Todd Skinner to semen found on a bed sheet in the home. Skinner, who was 17 at the time of the murder, was sentenced to 28 years in prison.

Working on the Bridges murder helped Wehner develop a unique method for investigating cases. The key to his strategy is reorganizing the loads of case files a certain way, which can help identify new leads and evidence.

It may sound simple, but Wehner told the Herald the tedious process takes weeks.

Wehner plans to use the method to comb through reports in the murders of Tyler and Ray, the only unsolved homicides in the department.

Tri-City law enforcement agencies report there are more than 25 unsolved murders in the area since 1960.

Tyler, 19, was stabbed to death in 1976 inside a former Tri-City Herald building where she worked. Police have questioned about 100 people in the case, though the killer has never been caught.

Ray, 51, was bludgeoned to death inside her Kennewick apartment in 2001. Police have indicated throughout the years there is a suspect in the case, but no arrest has been made.

While DNA evidence has been critical to solving cold cases nationwide, Wehner is optimistic that re-interviewing the characters in police reports may turn up new evidence.

“With the passage of time, some of the allegiances people initially had to each other may have changed,” Wehner said.

Wehner has already begun investigating the missing person cases of Saul F. Mercado and Jose L. Perez-Alpizar, both of whom had ties to Mexico. Mercado was reported missing in 1999 after not returning home from visiting family for Thanksgiving. Perez-Alpizar was reported missing in 1998 after family lost contact with him for a few months.

Wehner, who is working closely with Kennewick’s team of detectives, plans to start looking into the more “complex cases” in the near future, he said.

Police did not discuss intricate details of the cases because they are still considered ongoing investigations.

Right now, Wehner, who babysits his grandchild and has taken up hobbies since retiring, spends about three days a week at the department going over the cases.

However, he told the Herald that trying to solve the cases is a constant process.

“This is a very personal matter to people,” he said. “It’s about the victim and their family. The bottom line is these people can not be forgotten.”