JUNE 5, 2014
Linda Cook Thames fought back tears Thursday night as she pleaded for someone in the community to step up.
She’s not asking, she’s begging for someone — anyone — to come forward with information about her son’s killing.
Even though Lakeland police are taking a fresh look at her son’s cold case — along with the department’s 37 other unsolved murders — the detectives can’t do it alone.
And it’s time for the community to come together.
That’s the message Thames, along with six other community leaders, gave during a forum focused on Lakeland’s cold cases and unsolved homicides.
The forum was held as a partnership between The Ledger and Lakeland police and concluded a three-day series of articles highlighting the need for more community
involvement to solve the cases. The Ledger will continue the series for several weeks by profiling many of the 38 cases.
“We’re happy to partner with LPD to hopefully solve some of these cases to bring closure to the families and the police,” Ledger Media Group Editor Lenore Devore said. “Solving just one case will have made Thursday night’s forum and the series a success.”
Devore introduced the panelists, which included Thames, Lakeland Police Assistant Chief Mike Link, Sgt. Jeff Birdwell, Detective Brad Grice, Chief Assistant State Attorney Brian Haas, psychologist and Ledger columnist Berney Wilkinson and the Rev. Arthur Johnson from St. Luke’s Ministries in Lakeland.
They brought differing insight into why the police department has 38 unsolved murders and how they can be solved, but each emphasized a need for more community involvement.
Grice said that through The Ledger articles, detectives already have seen the community stepping up to help.
View a video replay of the forum.
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Earlier this week, police received a tip on a case that’s more than 10 years old. They also learned that the Florida Department of Law Enforcement will be refocusing a handful of their forensic analysts to work on cold case evidence.
Thames, whose son was shot to death in 2001 during an apparent carjacking, said she’s pleased to hear the police are doing everything they can to help bring closure for families.
WAITING FOR 12 YEARS
She’s been waiting more than 12 years for someone to speak up in her son’s case and she’s certain it will be solved soon.
“I hurt every day because I know there are people out there (who know something) and it’s not fair,” she said. “I hope and pray someone somewhere will say something.”
Grice said it’s families and loved ones like Thames that keep the detectives going. She’s constantly in contact with the detectives and never gives up hope that her son’s case will be solved — and she’s happy to know the detectives haven’t, either.
“I’m going to be part of their life and they’re going to have to get used to that until the case is solved,” she said.
Johnson said there’s many ways for the community to get involved to help Lakeland police.
One thing that needs to happen, he said, is for the police to start rebuilding trust with the community.
When the community sees police officers as equals, as human beings, people are more likely to share information, Johnson said. There are people out there who have information about these cases, he said, they just might be too afraid to talk.
Link said people should never be afraid to share their information, though, because there are ways to remain completely anonymous. He said people can call the department’s tip line and leave a message without their name or phone number.
They can call Heartland Crime Stoppers and leave no trace of who they are or where they’re calling from.
“I don’t need your name, I don’t need to know who you are,” Link said.
The detectives just need the information. The Lakeland police said they want to give hope to the families of the 38 homicide victims and they want to let the criminals know that the detectives haven’t forgotten. Anyone with information can call the Lakeland police tip line at 863-834-2549 or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
People can also call Crime Stoppers at 800-226-8477, remain anonymous and be eligible for a reward.
The following people were instrumental in working with The Ledger to bring this series to you and served on the panel at the “It Takes a Community to Solve a Murder” forum held at Lakeland City Hall on June 5, 2014.
Lakeland Assistant Police Chief
Mike Link began his career with the Lakeland Police Department in 1985 as a reserve officer, becoming a full-time officer in 1986. During his career Mike has served in several positions throughout the department while progressing through the ranks to his present assignment as the assistant chief of police for the Investigative Services Bureau.
Mike’s has a bachelor’s and master’s degree from Saint Leo University. He is a graduate of the FBI National Academy, the Police Executive Research Forum Senior Management Institute for Police, the FDLE Florida Criminal Justice Executive Institute Senior Leadership Program, and the Command Institute for Law Enforcement Executives Development (LEEDA).
Mike is involved with the International Association of Chiefs of Police, Florida Police Chief’s Association, Polk County Police Chief’s Association, Police Executive Research Forum, FBI National Academy Associates and the Florida Public Employer Labor Relations Association. He also is a board trustee for the city of Lakeland Police Officers Retirement System.
Supervisor, Criminal Investigation Section Violent Crimes Unit
Jeff Birdwell was hired by the Lakeland Police Department in October 1983 as a police officer. Since that time he has served a patrol officer, SPV officer, SWAT officer, narcotics detective and K-9. In June 1997 he was promoted to the position of patrol sergeant; he later transferred to be a C.O.P.S. sergeant and then the canine supervisor.
In October 1999, Mr. Birdwell became a supervisor in the Criminal Investigation Division. In May 2007, he was assigned to his current position as VCU supervisor. He has supervised and/or investigated approximately 75 homicides and 10 cold case homicides.
Mr. Birdwell has attended more than 2,000 hours of specialized law-enforcement training and has received numerous awards and commendations, including two prestigious “Medal of Valor” awards.
Detective, Violent Crimes Unit
Brad Grice has more than 26 years in law enforcement. He joined the Lakeland Police Department in 1988, working as a uniformed police officer before transferring as a detective to the Criminal Investigations Section in 1991. He became the senior homicide investigator in January 1997, a position he still holds. Detective Grice was a member of the task forces that investigated the quadruple murders at the Erie Manufacturing Plant in Bartow in 1997 and the kidnapping and murder of Robert Wiles from the Lakeland Airport in 2008.
Detective Grice has been the recipient of numerous awards, including the President’s Roundtable Law Enforcement Officer of the Year in 1998 and 2002, the Lakeland Police Department’s Detective of the Year in 1997 and 2001, and the American Legion’s Officer of the Year in 2006. Detective Grice has also received more than 80 commendations and letters of appreciation during his career.
Detective Grice has more than 800 hours of advanced/specialized training in the criminal justice field. Some of these courses include Homicide Investigations, Advanced Homicide Investigations, Cold Case Homicide Investigations, Death Investigations, Interviewing & Interrogation, Sex Crimes Investigations, Police Officer-Involved Shootings, Major Case Management, Fraud and Forgery Investigations, and Exploitation of the Elderly Investigations.
Detective Scott Kercher
Lakeland Police Department
Scott Kercher has 26 years of experience in law enforcement. He started with the Polk County Sheriff’s Office in 1988 as a correctional officer, then joined the Lakeland Police Department a year later.
Detective Kercher worked as a patrol officer for five years before switching to the C.O.P.S. Unit, where he worked in the high-crime area and Lake Morton neighborhood on bicycle patrol. Detective Kercher then moved to the traffic unit, where he rode the motorcycle and was responsible for starting the DUI Team in 1998. Detective Kercher worked traffic homicides and DUIs until 2001.
Detective Kercher’s next stop was in the Criminal Investigation Division, where he worked as the lead homicide investigator for five years. After leaving to work as an undercover detective with the bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, Kercher created the “Smoke-N-Guns” operation that was responsible for 47 arrests during a six-month operation. Detective Kercher returned to the Criminal Investigative Division, where he serves as a Cold Case detective.
Detective Kercher has received numerous awards during his 24 years with the Lakeland Police Department, including the Chief’s Award, Detective of the Year and President’s Roundtable Law Enforcement Officer of the Year. Detective Kercher has also received four Meritorious Awards, 14 Distinguished Performance Awards and 44 Employee Recognition Awards and performance letters.
Detective Kercher has more than 1,400 hours of advanced/specialized training in the criminal justice field. Some of these courses include Homicide Investigations, Advanced Homicide Investigations, Cold Case Homicide Investigations, Death Investigations, Interviewing & Interrogation, Sex Crimes Investigations, Police Officer-Involved Shootings, Major Case Management, Drug Investigations, Undercover Operations and DUI Schools.
Linda Cook Thames
Mother of Slain Son
Linda Cook Thames has been married to Lawrence Paul Thames for 33 years. She worked in the phosphate industry at Mosaic for 15 years, in assisted living facilities for two years, in a bail bondsman office for 10 years, and in the child-care industry for four years.
Mrs. Cook is the mother of Eric Cook, her “angel.” Eric was murdered in 2001 after an unknown assailant shot him while he sat in his car at a gas station, waiting for his cousin. The case remains unsolved.
Dr. Berney Wilkinson
Dr. Berney Wilkinson is a clinical psychologist who has served the families of Polk County for more than a decade. He currently works in a group practice located in South Lakeland, where his primary focus is working with children and adolescents experiencing behavioral and emotional difficulties. In addition, Dr. Wilkinson is a weekly columnist for The Ledger and is the co-author of a parenting book titled “Handbook for Raising an Emotionally Healthy Child.”
Dr. Wilkinson has presented across the United States, working with parents, educators and child specialists in developing appropriate strategies for managing childhood behavioral and emotional difficulties. In addition, he is often hired by church and other social organizations to conduct parenting classes and workshops.
Prior to his current roles, Dr. Wilkinson was an assistant professor at the University of South Florida College of Medicine. He continues to teach undergraduate and graduate-level courses at Webster University, USF and Florida Southern College. He is also the counseling coordinator for the Webster University graduate counseling program.
Dr. Wilkinson graduated from USF with a doctorate in School Psychology in 2005. Throughout his training he specialized in pediatric psychology. Upon completion of his doctorate, Dr. Wilkinson completed a yearlong post-graduate program in school neuropsychology and another program in forensic psychiatry.
The Rev. Arthur Johnson
St. Luke’s Ministries
Arthur Johnson is a senior pastor at St. Luke’s Ministries, a Christian non-denominational church in Lakeland. Its community centers provide many services, such as vocational training, parenting classes and temporary shelter, and the Rev. Johnson is a leader in the community.
State Attorney’s Office
Brian Haas is the chief assistant state attorney for the 10th Judicial Circuit of Florida. In this position, Mr. Haas is responsible for overseeing the day-to-day operations of the State Attorney’s Office, which prosecutes all criminal cases in Polk, Highlands and Hardee Counties. He is also the spokesman for the office and reports directly to State Attorney Jerry Hill.
Brian Haas grew up in Polk County and is a 1993 graduate of Bartow High School. He received his college degree from Flagler College in St. Augustine and his law degree from the University of Florida. Upon graduation from law school, Mr. Haas returned to Polk County and began his career as a prosecutor. He prosecuted crimes ranging from misdemeanors to capital felonies. He was assigned to the Special Prosecution Division, where he prosecuted defendants who committed sexual crimes against children.
After serving as a prosecutor for three years, Mr. Haas entered private practice. From 2003 to 2011, he handled civil cases and also served as city attorney for the city of Frostproof.
In 2011, Mr. Haas returned to the State Attorney’s Office and the Special Prosecution Division. He was promoted to his current role in 2012.
If you have any information on any cold cases handled by Lakeland Police Department, please call the department or email detectives at email@example.com.