Mike Ciesynski knows evil.
He sees it every time he opens one of the fat binders that pack the sagging bookshelves in his cramped office at police headquarters. Each case neatly labeled with the names of victims killed years, often decades, ago.
There was 15-year-old Sarah Beth Lundquist, raped and murdered on her way home from seeing a horror movie. A pregnant 16-year-old Sandra Bowman, raped and stabbed to death in her bedroom, and 48-year-old Agnes Myra Williams, found raped and strangled in a wooded ravine. The names of more victims fill a spreadsheet taped above his desk.
Mike Ciesynski, SPD’s cold case homicide detective, at his desk. (Photo by Chris Mobley, SPD Photo Lab)
Psychopaths murdered most of them. Ciesynski helped put the killers behind bars, or keep them there. “These people are evil because they will never change,” he said. “They learn their tradecraft. Every time they commit a homicide, they are learning more. They practice.”
Ciesynski is a rarity – a cold case homicide detective who survived the Great Recession. He’s the only officer at the Seattle Police Department dedicated to solving cold cases. Few departments in this state still have one and a 2011 study done for the U.S. Department of Justice found that only 7 percent of law enforcement agencies nationally have cold case units.
While the murders may be old, they still should be investigated, said Tammee Matheny, an investigator with the Washington state Attorney General’s office. “We’re all suckers for a good ending,” she said. “Even if every case is not solved, it’s important to let people know you’re still looking. You want somebody to still be looking.”
At 59, with graying hair, spectacles and two grown kids, Ciesynski can foresee a time when he swaps tracking killers for golfing in warmer climes, but not for a while. His desk remains stacked with cases. Families call him regularly asking about progress.
Killers sometimes call wondering the same thing.
Ciesynski recalls coming home one holiday to find a message on his answering machine from a suspect under investigation for the deaths of three women. It was DeWayne Lee Harris, nicknamed Chilly Willy. He liked to call Ciesynski “Mikey Mike.”
“Hey Mikey Mike, this is Chilly,” the killer said. “You probably won’t pick up today because of the holidays. Well, I guess I’ll see you tomorrow, man. So have a nice holiday.”
The detective asked his wife, “When’s the last time a serial murderer told you to have a nice holiday?”
Ciesynski grew up in Chicago, worked a few years at smaller police departments in Illinois and Wyoming, and then got a job as Seattle patrol officer in 1983. He moved through narcotics, undercover work, and robbery before landing in homicide in 1994. He became a cold case detective 10 years ago.
Murders only become cold cases when they remain unsolved, and the detectives who originally worked the cases move to another unit or retire. Sometimes that’s a matter of years. More often it’s decades.
His job is to dust off the cobwebs and see if time or technology can create a break in the case.
Many of the cases are so old that DNA matching didn’t exist when the murders were committed. So Ciesynski hunts through old evidence looking for samples of blood, semen or saliva that can be compared to the DNA of criminals entered into the Combined DNA Index System, CODIS, which is a large FBI database containing DNA profiles.
In 2005, for example, Ciesynski sent clothing to the state lab, hoping to get a DNA match for the person who killed Jackson Schley in 1972. In that case, someone broke into home, shot and killed Schley, then raped his wife.
At the same time, a former partner also sent samples for the seemingly unrelated murder of James Kueler, stabbed to death at his home in 1968. Both detectives were surprised when the lab called back and said the same suspect killed both men.
Unfortunately, there was no DNA match in the database then, but in 2009, Samuel Evans got out of prison, moved to Everett and had to register as a sex offender, which meant he had to provide a DNA sample. Bingo, his DNA matched samples taken from the Schley and Kueler murders.
Ciesynski tracked the 74-year-old killer down and arrested him. Evans entered pleas to both charges and went back to prison.
Getting a confession
Getting killers to confess isn’t easy.
True-crime author Ann Rule, who’s featured Ciesynski’s work in many of her books, says he’s got a knack for getting killers to fess up.
“He’s very thorough and gets people to talk to him quite easily. He’s not a bullying interviewer,” Rule said. “That makes it easier for even bad guys to talk to him.”
Ciesynski recalled his efforts to get “Chilly Willy” to confess to slaying three women in “the jungle,” a greenbelt area near Interstate 5. The killer’s signature was removing the victim’s shoelaces and then using them to tie the women up after they were dead.
Harris, who was in the King County Jail on robbery charges, actually called SPD first and offered to lead officers to the “real” murderer.
Serial killers’ egos will often be their undoing, Ciesynski said. “They always think they’re smarter. They will manipulate the conversation. They want to help you find the guy who did it,” he said.
Ciesynski and his partner would pick Harris up at jail each day, take him for a hotdog and then have him lead them to where the killer was supposedly hiding.
The key is to keep them talking. “Eventually you start breaking them down,” he said. “The more you can keep them talking, the better off you are.”
After several days of searching for the fictional killer, Harris finally said “Mikey Mike, I’m tired of this. Yeah, I killed her. And I killed the one down in the stairwell too.”
Harris was ultimately sentenced to 94 years in prison for killing three women. The sentencing judge told him, “I have never run into anyone who has shown (such) lack of reverence for human life.”
Devil in the alley
Ciesynski’s job made him a bit paranoid about his own children when they were younger, as well as other young people he’d see around the city.
“I’d be driving and see where we’d worked on (murder) cases. You’d see these young girls walking down the street and I’d start thinking, ‘It’s getting kind of late,’ ” he said.
It’s no wonder, considering the cases he’s worked on, such as the murder of Sarah Beth Lundquist.
Lundquist was a high school student who did volunteer work at a local hospital. She was returning home from seeing a horror movie early in the morning on July 1, 1978, when she was abducted, raped and murdered. The killer stabbed her 37 times.
“Here she was 15 years old. She was a good kid. She came from seeing this scary, scary movie, ‘Omen II,’ and was walking home in the dark. It was 12:30 at night and she was hoping the devil doesn’t jump out and grab her. What happened? The devil jumped out of the alley and grabbed her.”
Ciesynski submitted a DNA sample from the crime scene to the state lab. He went through Lundquist’s clothing and found evidence, including a movie ticket and bus transfer, that let him create a timeline. It showed what time she’d seen the movie, when she’d gotten off the bus near her house, and when a witness heard a scream in the same area.
The DNA matched that of Clarence Williams, a convicted serial killer already in prison for the murder of another woman. He denied killing Lundquist at first, but Ciesynski’s timeline invalidated the killer’s excuse. Williams pled guilty at his arraignment and was sentenced to another 25 years to life in prison.
Without that sentence, “he’d be out of prison by now,” Ciesynski said.
Why it’s important
Many of the killers Ciesynski’s tied to unsolved murders were already in prison serving long sentences for other crimes.
Even so, it’s still worth prosecuting them to bring closure for the victims’ families, he said.
That was certainly true when he and a partner tracked down Sandra Bowman’s killer.
Bowman was a pregnant newlywed living in Ballard when her husband, Tom, left for a late factory shift on Dec. 17, 1968. His wife wrote him a note saying she was going to bed early: “I went shopping today. I have $2.40 left over. The baby is kicking, I’m sure it’s a boy. Love you, Sandy.”
She put the note up. There was a knock on the door, she opened it and the killer raped Bowman and then stabbed her more than 50 times. The husband was a suspect at first, but eventually cleared. The murder went unsolved for decades.
Ciesynski and his partner – who were working through a series of murders in which the victims had been raped – submitted DNA evidence from the crime scene and got a match to John Dwight Canaday, a serial killer already serving life in prison for other murders. The detectives went to the state penitentiary in Walla Walla and confronted Canaday with the evidence.
“He literally shrugged with his hands and said, ‘Yeah, I killed her,’ ” Ciesynski said. He was sentenced for that murder in 2004.
Bowman’s husband Tom, who had remarried was working as a sergeant in the Walla Walla County Sheriff’s department, testified at the trial. He told the court he’d contemplated suicide after the murder. “The only reason I didn’t kill myself,” he said, “is because then people would think I had something to do with it.”
Less than a month after the trial, (Tom) Bowman went out for a run and died from a heart attack.
Bowman’s wife later told the detectives, “You would not believe the difference in him once you solved that case. His personality was changed. He was almost beaming, he was so relieved,” Ciesynski said.
“I tell people, that’s why we close cold cases. That guy was already in prison, but that’s why we work cold cases.”