Cold Case Unit strives to solve Piedmont mysteries
by Rachael Griffin
Jan 11, 2013 | 8894 views |  0 comments | 14 14 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Max Kirby, an investigator for the Calhoun County Cold Case Unit, looks over photos and drawings from ‘The Fish Net’ murder case in 2009. (File Photo / Bill Wilson / The Anniston Star)
Max Kirby, an investigator for the Calhoun County Cold Case Unit, looks over photos and drawings from ‘The Fish Net’ murder case in 2009. (File Photo / Bill Wilson / The Anniston Star)
Retirement wasn’t going to stop Max Kirby from investigating the cases that were never solved during his 29 years as a deputy, and later chief deputy, in the Calhoun County Sheriff’s Office.

Kirby, one of the lead investigators on the murder case of missing Piedmont woman Carla Fuqua, started working part-time for the Calhoun County Cold Case Unit when it began in 2002.

Kirby said he felt like he had unfinished business involving several missing persons cases he had worked on with Sheriff Larry Amerson over their 13 years as partners.

“These are homicides in Piedmont and it happened on my watch,” Kirby said in a meeting room at the Sheriff’s Office.

Kirby was Amerson’s mentor when Amerson began his own career as a deputy. The three missing persons in Piedmont, Patrick Burrows, Jeffery McFry and Karen Steed all disappeared in the 1990s when Kirby and Amerson were still guarding the streets of Calhoun County.

After Kirby retired in 1999, he and three other retired investigators from the Alabama Bureau of Investigations, the Federal Bureau of Investigations and the Anniston Police Department got together and formed what would later officially be the Calhoun County Cold Case Unit.

To date the unit has solved 12 cold cases and hopes to make Fuqua number 13.

Fuqua’s body was found Dec. 3 after a tip led investigators to a wooded area along Alabama 21 in Piedmont, near what residents refer to as “the brickyard.” The 28-year-old mother had been missing since October 2009. Investigators used dental records to identify the skeletal remains.

Kirby is the only investigator left from the original unit that was formed, and for Fuqua’s case he has help from Rachel Israel, an investigator with the Sheriff’s Office.

Kirby said he prefers to work these kinds of cases because he “feels like you’re doing something productive.”

He does it for the people who are out there wondering what has happened to their loved ones. Kirby said he still receives calls every week from the mother of one of the missing persons from Piedmont.

Starting from scratch

Kirby said there are some advantages to working cold cases; mainly it’s easier to get people to talk.

“People aren’t scared to talk about cold cases after a few years. When it first happens people are afraid of what might happen to them and they have a tendency to back off. But after a few years people are more willing to talk,” Kirby said.

Kirby recalls cases he’s helped solve throughout his career easier than some people can say what they had for breakfast that morning.

“He remembers those details and nuances,” Amerson said.

After a case goes cold, Kirby revisits those details, sometimes overlooked when a case is fresh and tips are pouring in.

“There might have been a witness that wasn’t located or a tip that wasn’t picked up on. Often that information will be turned into a lead that solves the case,” the sheriff said.

Kirby is able to look at these cold cases with fresh eyes and essentially starts the investigative process over from scratch. Kirby said being able to take his time on these cases can make all the difference.

“When this stuff happened (investigators) just didn’t have the time. Maybe something would happen that they had to drop this and go onto something else, maybe if they’d had another week on it they could have solved it. But we could take time,” Kirby said.

Israel said the Cold Case Unit was created to go back and re-analyze and re-interview witnesses, especially years later when “maybe there was something they felt threatened to tell.”

Israel said Kirby is always able to build a rapport with the people he interviews. Kirby attributes that connection to always telling the truth. Kirby says he’s never lied to a person about anything because “the first time you lie, you’ve lost credit.”

“If I say to a man I’m going to lock him up he might as well go stand at the door because eventually I’m going to lock him up,” Kirby said.

In need of information

Kirby and Israel are focusing their energy on solving Fuqua’s murder and finding out what happened to the three missing in Piedmont. Kirby said they’ve received multiple tips and continue to investigate them.

“We certainly need information. Any information would be handled exclusively in private,” Kirby said.

Amerson said people are still reluctant to speak about the Piedmont cases; an element of fear continues to surround the three that are missing.

“It takes people to reach out to us and make that phone call, write a letter or send an email and we’ll follow up on it,” he said.

Kirby said he believes every person that does someone harm wants to tell someone, but they just don’t know how.

“I think everybody really honestly has a conscience,” Kirby said.

Kirby said he won’t quit until he solves the cases he’s been on for the last 20 years.

“I know somebody in that area knows,” Kirby said. “I have faith eventually I’m going to get that call.”

Staff Writer Rachael Griffin: 256-235-3562. On Twitter @RGriffin_Star.

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