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WARMING UP TO COLD CASES

Ashley Wellman advocates for the families of victims of unsolved homicides.

While Ashley Peake Wellman worked in a Florida sheriff’s cold-case unit during her doctoral studies in criminology, she had a life-changing conversation with the mother of a murder victim.

“I just want to know what happened to my daughter, and no one will respond to me,” the woman told Wellman, now an instructor of criminal justice at TCU.

The two went outside and talked for hours. Wellman apologized for not having answers. The mother replied, “I just wanted to be heard. I wanted to know she wasn’t forgotten.”

The encounter shaped Wellman’s calling to work with the families of cold-case homicide victims.

She began a series of detailed interviews with over two dozen grieving family members. Wellman learned about their anger, hurt, frustration and complicated relationships with law enforcement and the news media.

Ashley Wellman advocates for the families of victims of unsolved homicides.
PHOTO BY RODGER MALLISON

 

Wellman has published her findings in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, the Journal of Family Studies, Crime Media Culture and Violence and Victims. As a public speaker and media commentator, she shares insights gleaned from those conversations. She also works with police to improve how they communicate with distraught people hoping for information about a loved one’s death.

“I don’t understand the ivory tower concept of staying inside walls and just keeping your publications inside a journal,” Wellman said.

Marian Borg, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Florida and Wellman’s PhD adviser and co-author, called Wellman’s criminology research an “incredible contribution. … The stories of what people go through and the circumstances they find themselves in — they convey a level of meaning and understanding that you just don’t get with other types of analysis.”

Over 16,000 Americans died by homicide in 2018. That year, 62.3 percent of homicides resulted in an arrest — a drastic drop compared to 1965, when more than 90 percent of slayings resulted in criminal charges. The unresolved crimes have thrust tens of thousands of relatives into limbo.

Bereft of justice, these surviving family members experience a stunted grief, Wellman said. “You don’t know who to blame. … You don’t know where to put that hurt.”

If years drag by and a case remains unsolved, families — especially those in marginalized groups — begin to suspect investigators of not caring, Wellman said. A perceived lack of police empathy can worsen tensions between law enforcement and communities, which in turn can lead to lower arrest rates.

But if a family has access to a detective who listens and keeps them informed, they are better able to trust the investigative process.

When working with these families, police need to be transparent, offer updates and explain their decisions, said Michele Meitl, an assistant professor of criminal justice and Wellman’s co-author on a 2020 paper about families’ interactions with law enforcement.

“These families have suffered a tremendous amount of grief, just like anybody who has lost a loved one to violence. But there’s sort of a revictimization going on here,” Meitl said. “Any way that we can try and make that relationship work better to minimize the grief is important.”

Beyond private mourning, family members also described a vertiginous shift in their daily lives.

“If someone’s murdered, instantly [a relative is] thrust into these relationships with institutions you had no desire to be a part of,” Wellman said. “You’re surrounded by detectives and law enforcement. Medical people. Medical examiners. The media, full force. … It’s a forced trauma bond with media [and] law enforcement.”

The news media can retraumatize survivors, she said. A headline may frame a victim as a drug user, even if the person was a pot-smoking college student. News reports might add insult to injury by using a victim’s mugshot rather than obtaining a more relatable photo from the family.

Some family members exhaust themselves to keep a case in the public eye.

“For some, it actually becomes a defining role in their life — being that advocate, being that investigator, being the media presence,” Wellman said.

“Maintaining the value of their [loved one’s] life is so important to the survivors.”

Wellman’s own experience gives her added perspective on living with grief. In summer 2018, just before she started working at TCU, her husband, Buddy Wellman, abruptly died. The couple’s daughter was 4 at the time.

Suddenly, advice Wellman had long given the families she works with — get help, advocate for yourself, grieve both individually and as a family — became all too personal.

In coming to terms with widowhood, Wellman wound up becoming a children’s author. Her first book, The Girl Who Dances With Skeletons: My Friend Fresno (Rea of Sunshine, 2020), is about her daughter’s adventures with a toy skeleton.

“I tell my families, ‘You need to create a new chapter. You cannot get over it. There is no closure,’ ” she said. “ ‘But what you can do is you can create new traditions. You can create new identities and roles.’ ”

LISTEN TO A PODCAST with Ashley Wellman

 

BY JENNY BLAIR