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The real NCIS: Years of work, dogged investigations and no promise of closure

Case files and photogrpahs regarding Marine Robert Corriveau, left, and Navy sailor Daniel Erickson are seen here on a desk at the NCIS cold case office in Washington D.C. Corriveau was found murdered in Chester County, Pennsylvania, about 30 miles northwest of Philadelphia, in 1968 and Erickson was found murdered in Carrollton, Missouri on Veteran's Day in 1975. Of the 40 or so cases the cold case unit is currently working, these two have been among the toughest.

Editor's note: This story was updated Aug. 9 to correct an inaccuracy.

In the fall of 1968, a Pennsylvania state trooper discovered the body of a young man dumped along a turnpike northwest of Philadelphia.

The John Doe had a U.S. Marine Corps bulldog tattoo and had died from a single stab wound to the heart. The slaying and the man’s identity perplexed police, and the case went cold for more than four decades.

A break came last year when Pennsylvania authorities entered the man’s DNA into a national missing-persons database.

A hit sent them to the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, which helped confirm that Cpl. Robert “Bobby Dan” Corriveau had finally been found. The 20-year-old Marine from Lawrence, Mass., received two Purple Hearts after being wounded three times in action in Vietnam. He disappeared from Philadelphia Naval Hospital while on leave in 1968, suffering from symptoms that might be diagnosed today as PTSD. He was labeled a deserter, which tortured his family.

“It was heartbreaking when he disappeared,” said his sister, Virginia Cleary. “It was hard to go through life like that, always wondering what happened to him.”

But it remains unclear whether they will ever know what happened. The cold case is among NCIS’s toughest — tangles of busted leads and dead ends that have gone dormant for decades.

The tough, unsolved murders land on the desks of the agency’s Cold Case Homicide Unit, where they challenge investigators’ ability to peer into the past and find justice for victims. Unlike those on the CBS series “NCIS,” these cases are not solved in an hour of television with commercials; they take years of leg work and sometime a little luck.

Or they might never be solved at all.

Dozens of longshots

Time is usually the biggest adversary for the NCIS cold case detectives.

Since its creation in 1995, the unit has cracked 63 cases involving Marines and sailors, NCIS spokesman Ed Buice said. But dozens of others, like the Corriveau slaying, remain unsolved.

Decades have wiped away evidence and leads — names change, people die and crime scenes on barren farmland are transformed by development projects. The evidence that does exist comes from a time before electronic trails left by cell phones, emails and text messaging.

Investigators in the Corriveau case can’t even track down people who were at the hospital with him. Records are privacy-protected, and the building has been demolished.

All of the unit’s 40 or so open cases are long shots. If Corriveau’s killer is found, it will be the oldest case ever solved by the unit but not by much. The record was a crime solved after 41 years, Buice said.

Still, the passage of time does not erase the heartache felt by victims’ relatives and friends. Many are haunted by the unsolved slayings, said NCIS Special Agent Kaylyn Dueker, an investigator in the cold case unit.

“Their families still have a lot of pain,” she said. “If you can give somebody closure, that’s a really important thing.”

Murdered before deployment

In 2009, Jim Erickson was watching “NCIS,” the crime drama based loosely on the agency, when he had an idea. The Minnesota resident picked up the phone and was eventually connected with Dueker.

Tears came as he told the story of his 20-year-old brother, Petty Officer 2nd Class Daniel Erickson.

His younger brother’s body was found in a Carrollton, Mo., barn in 1975. Erickson was shot twice in the chest and once in the head. Months earlier, the sailor had left home in St. Paul, Minn., to drive his beloved Chevrolet Camaro to his new duty station aboard the USS Durham in San Diego. He never arrived.

Just a day after he left home, the Camaro was involved in a collision in Birmingham, Ala., far from his intended route to California. The driver fled. Alabama police recovered a .38-caliber revolver, clothes too small to fit Erickson, a backpack, sunglasses and a cigarette lighter from Erickson’s car.

Jim Erickson was nine years older than his brother Danny. He always viewed his sibling as a typical pain-in-the-neck baby brother. But that changed when Danny returned from a deployment aboard the USS Rathburne in summer 1975, just before his disappearance.

Erickson’s little brother had matured into a man. For the first time, they really bonded.

“I found that he was a fun person,” Erickson told Stars and Stripes. “He was a very caring person. I was looking forward to spending more time with him when he got out.”

Erickson’s final memories of his brother include a canoe trip and Danny swinging in the front yard of their parents’ home with Erickson’s young daughter on his lap.

Then Danny Erickson was gone.

Mistakes made

The investigations into both deaths were troubled from the beginning.

Despite the Marine Corps tattoo, officials did not connect the John Doe to Corriveau using the records of AWOL or missing Marines. The Vietnam War was unpopular at the time and there were far too many AWOL servicemembers, according to police.

Agents from NCIS’s predecessor agency visited all of the Navy and Marine facilities in the area and even provided a description and photos to the Philadelphia Naval Hospital’s command staff, but again, no connection was made. Corriveau’s photo and description were also plastered in the Philadelphia newspapers, but no information was generated. His fingerprints were submitted and resubmitted over the years but there were never any “hits.”

In the Erickson case, disparate agencies and jurisdictions handled the various pieces of evidence, according to Jim Erickson.

Alabama police originally investigated the crash, which included the driver fleeing the scene, and called Minnesota repeatedly looking for the sailor as part of that criminal traffic case.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation briefly investigated Erickson’s disappearance as a military deserter. The agency turned the case over to a local sheriff’s department in Missouri when his body was found there.

Meanwhile, the Navy had been told of the death, but NCIS’s predecessor agency was never notified.
Erickson said mistakes were made as the complex investigation dragged on.

Eventually, he found himself on the phone with an NCIS agent 34 years after his brother’s unsolved murder, hoping for a break.

Special agent Dueker went to each jurisdiction and agency that had been involved to see what was in their archives, pulling every piece of the case apart before putting it back together again.

It was believed that after Erickson left his parent’s home in St. Paul, he picked up a hitchhiker who killed him and stole his car. The backpack and clothes collected as evidence might have belonged to the killer.

There were also indications the Camaro had traveled through Springfield, Mo., and Arkansas on the way to Birmingham. But tracing the journey proved difficult.
Pay phones along the route that could have provided information had been removed.

Dueker focused on the small towns that Erickson and his killer might have passed through. She reinterviewed witnesses who were still alive and could be found. Much of the work led to more dead ends.

“At cold case, you hear ‘no’ a lot,” she said. “I interviewed a lot of people in 2009 and 2010.”

Going with what's hot

Erickson’s death is among about 18 active cold cases that Dueker is working. Along with the Corriveau slaying, it ranks among the most difficult. Dueker is usually working two cases at a time when not deployed overseas for specific investigations.

“You go with what’s hot,” she said. “It’s like any street detective. But they’re all very important cases and we want to see them closed.”

Both cases are so old that they may never be solved, investigators say.

But the passage of time may hold at least one advantage for detectives, said Pennsylvania State Trooper Henry Callithen III, a member of the state’s Criminal Investigation Assessment Unit.

The state trooper’s investigative unit is the lead in the Corriveau case and is getting assistance from Dueker and the NCIS team.

Whoever committed such crimes probably told someone in the ensuing decades. Those witnesses may have had a falling-out with the killer or developed a conscience, Callithen said.

“We’re looking for people who can shed light on [Corriveau’s] activity, who he associated with, where he was going and how he was getting there,” he said.

Keeping hope alive

Dueker declined to comment on the specifics of her cases, saying she needed to protect ongoing investigations.

But the NCIS detective continues to look for witnesses to the Erickson car crash in Birmingham in 1975 and for evidence of who stabbed Robert Corriveau.

“You never know who is going to have that one piece that’s going to solve the puzzle,” she said.

For Jim Erickson, it helps to know someone like Dueker might find his brother’s killer.

“When I first met her, I asked her if she knew Gibbs,” Erickson said jokingly, referring to the character from the popular television show. “She said, ‘In my office, I am Gibbs.’”

He now has something he did not have for years — hope.

“She’s tenacious,” he said. “I would not want her after me.”

Anyone with information about either case should contact NCIS at www.ncis.navy.mil or the Pennsylvania State Police at 610-268-5158.

burke.matt@stripes.com

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