SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) - In some murder cases, justice can be swift for family members of victims. In other cases, it can be years, even decades.
In Savannah, a new effort is underway for families in that second category. Metro's relatively new Cold Case Unit is finally getting the pieces it needs to be successful.
With so much violent crime being added to the detectives' workload, police realized a lot of these older, unsolved cases fell to the wayside. They hope to solve some of them now with this added effort and community knowledge of the unit.
Christmas Day in 2009 was no different for the McCullough family. Two days later though, their lives would change forever.
"I can't embrace him. I can't sit down with him. I can't sit down and have a talk with him. We can't walk in the park together," said Tyree's mother, Audrey McCullough.
Tyree McCullough was shot dead at 25 years old in his apartment complex in West Savannah.
"Even though eight years has passed, the hurt, the pain, those don't pass. You just learn how to deal with it," said McCullough.
Audrey McCullough has spent sleepless nights praying for an arrest in her son's case. Detectives could never pin down a gunman though.
That's where a basement office in Metro Headquarters comes into play.
"The element of surprise is something, is the main advantage that we have," said Lt. David Barefield, the supervisor of the Cold Case Unit. "We thought it was necessary to have someone that is always here that the families can always call and talk to."
The team is made up of five former Metro detectives who work part-time. Each brings decades of experience in different fields from financial crimes to forensics experts and even former homicide detectives.
"So, when we put all of this together, there's really nothing, no area that we're weak in combined," said Lt. Barefield.
Recently, the unit added a full-time detective from the homicide unit. They work more than 150 hours a week to bring closure to families like Audrey McCullough's.
"We want to make sure that community understands and families understand that after a few years if the case hasn't been solved, we don't want them to feel like the case has been forgotten about, that the department has just moved on from it because we haven't," said Lt. Barefield.
The unit started in November of last year. It was originally funded by the city; it is now part of the department's budget.
" With all of our resources dedicated to solving current crime going, current homicides happening, we noticed that we weren't able to devote as much time as we wanted to on cold cases," said Lt. Barefield.
The team meets daily to go over old case files. They look at the evidence, contact family members, and even consider old suspects. Besides the obvious struggle of investigating cases that are hard to solve – there is another major obstacle.
"Finding people has been our biggest struggle. When we start talking about cases; we're working on a case now that's 36 years old. So when you start looking at these cases that are older, people have moved on, some people may have passed on," said Lt. Barefield.
There are advantages though, like relationships that may have prevented an arrest in the crime's early days – say girlfriend-boyfriend where the boyfriend is a suspect.
"The girlfriend may cover for him or he may use her an alibi witness or something to that effect. Well, later on, that relationship may have dissolved, it may have gone bad, and now she's like, 'you know what, I know what he did and I'm going to tell you,'" said Lt. Barefield.
Until that day comes, detectives will spend their days pouring over evidence hoping to bring closure to dozens of grieving families. When that call does finally come for Audrey McCullough, it will be overwhelming.
"I don't think I could find the words to really put that in as to how it would make me feel," said McCullough. "It would mean that I can now let my son go. I can now say for me as his mother, I did what I felt what was best for me, for my son, and that was to keep pushing for justice."
It's justice that police and families are now fighting for together in cases where killers have never been captured.
This unit normally gets cases a year after they go unsolved. That is not a definite timeline though. While they haven't cracked a case yet, they have several cases he feels good about including one that's 36 years old. All of that is with a mostly part-time team. One quick note—detectives mainly focus on homicides. They do investigate unsolved rapes as well though.
Police said their biggest thing right now is getting the word out about this new unit. If you have a family member with an unsolved homicide – you're encouraged to reach out to police. You can find that number here.