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Cold Case unit volunteers to solve old homicide cases in new era

Retired Pima County detectives dedicate time to help families get justice
Shot of detective at desk
Posted at 6:11 AM, Apr 12, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-13 01:22:15-04

TUCSON, Ariz. (KGUN) — 5 former Pima County Sheriff’s Department homicide detectives are volunteering their time to join forces and fight crime, the special unit has over 50 years of combined knowledge and experience and they're using it with one goal in mind. To solve cases that have been lingering in the minds of investigators and families for years.

Retired homicide detective James Gamber is one of them. He’s part of the special group who’s putting a new set of eyes on old cases. The team has been in place since 2019. They're helping the homicide unit, who is flooded with new murders, officer-involved shootings, missing persons, unidentified deceased cases, and more.

"We keep coming back. Active homicide units can’t jump back and forth."

You contribute to a lot of cases and then you have 1 or 2 primary cases going on. I encourage people looking at these cases to go in with your eyes wide open,” Gamber said.

While the team can’t reopen their own old cases, they can choose any other case to work on. The team uses techniques that can jumpstart a cold case and put them hot on a new trail. That’s when active investigators step in to work the case.

RELATED: Old unsolved cold cases in Pima County get a fresh look

"We get to sit back, look at other people’s work and take a longer, wider look at things. You also have to think about how they used to preserve certain types of evidence. Today, we would've stored this evidence frozen. Back in the 1960’s they wouldn’t consider that. It's not that they did it wrong, it's just now how they did things,” Gamber said.

According to Gamber, in some situations its all about social norms. Gamber admits that while some memories fade others become crystal clear during the re-interview process.

"Let's say I interviewed you back in 1968, and you were reluctant to talk about where you were because you were with your friends smoking dope. In 1969, you would've been scared to death to tell a cop I was smoking marijuana and getting high with my friends. That social barrier is gone now. The same thing with sexual orientation and a lot of things like that. A lot of those doors people kept closed are open now,” Gamber said.

One of Gamber’s most memorable cases was when he solved the 1996 car bombing and murder of Tucson businessman Gary Triano.

That’s because the reaction of Triano’s ex-wife and convicted killer Pamela Phillips during her transport from Austria back to Tucson was priceless. Phillips is now serving life in prison.

“U.S. Marshalls were going to bring her to the airport and turn her over to me and her comment to them on the plane was, if Gamber is in the airport I’m not getting off the plane,” Gamber said.

Right now, there are 197 unsolved cold cases at the Pima County Sheriff’s Department that date all the way back to 1958. Cases this investigator and his team are determined to solve, and they continue to push and search for answers.

"We break down all the barriers. It establishes to the public that the system works. That we’re out here and we’re working these cases and we are resolving them,” Gamber said.