Rosaline Horton says Christmas usually is the worst. And then there’s her son’s birthday.

But Horton, whose son James Alan Horton died 17 years ago at the hand of an unknown killer, says every day brings memories of her boy.

“If only we knew who killed him,” Horton said, her words barely audible across the telephone line.

“They’ve been working on this for 17 years. It’s hard for all of my family. It was hard for my husband, who died not knowing who killed his son.”

The 1992 slaying of the 22-year-old petty officer third class in Berkeley County, S.C., is one of more than 100 unsolved murders being investigated by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service’s Cold Case Homicide Unit. Though other military investigation commands regularly review cold cases, NCIS is the only Defense Department criminal investigation unit with agents dedicated primarily to unsolved violent crimes.

The squad is actively investigating 44 homicides and has another 63 inactive cases that it doesn’t have the manpower to investigate, said Michael Sullivan, the cold case unit’s senior homicide analyst.

The unit formed in 1995 after the murder of a Navy lieutenant during a port call had gone unsolved for nearly two years. On the morning of June 15, 1993, the USS Yorktown stopped at St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. That evening, three crewmembers left to tour the island. Shortly after leaving the ship, several unidentified men armed with handguns and a baseball bat assaulted the three crewmembers. Lt. Robert D. Bartlett was killed, Sullivan said.

“By late 1994, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Virgin Islands Police Department, and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service had made little progress in identifying the individuals responsible for Lieutenant Bartlett’s murder,” Sullivan said. “The decision was made to create a task force for an ‘all-out’ effort to resolve this murder. Six NCIS agents, joined by five VIPD detectives and one deputy U.S. marshal, created what became known as the Virgin Islands Task Force.”

Twenty-seven days later, Bartlett’s killer was in custody.

“That got everyone at headquarters excited,” Sullivan said.

And the unit was born.

Since its inception, agents have solved 58 cold cases.

“The benefit of the cold case unit … is that it lends credibility to the agency and to what we do — we’re never letting go,” Sullivan said.

The demands of two ongoing wars, however, have pulled agents to the front lines. The cold case unit’s staff has shrunk from 22 agents at its peak in 1997 to seven agents today, Sullivan said. NCIS has some 1,300 agents worldwide.

While technological improvements in science and forensics have helped agents piece together the unsolved murder puzzles, more often than not, said NCIS Special Agent Kaylyn Dueker, answers to solving a case come from people. They include people whose relationships with perpetrators might have changed and who no longer feel indebted by a sense of allegiance to keep the secrets; people who might seek atonement for their crimes and people who tell officials of a seemingly insignificant memory, only to provide the key to solving the mystery.

NCIS agents are assigned to the cold case squad as their primary job. From time to time, though, they’re called out to help investigate new cases. That helps agents keep abreast of new training techniques and forensics, said Dueker, who is based in the Washington, D.C., field office and joined NCIS in 1999.

“A difference between investigating a cold case versus a regular, or hot case, is that you’re proactive versus reactive,” Sullivan said. “It’s a different mindset.”

As time passes, as evidence decays or disappears, as people die or forget, solving a cold case becomes more of a matter of finding the dots than connecting them.

Investigators are hoping that advancements in DNA science will help them develop new leads in the Horton case, NCIS spokesman Ed Buice told The (Charleston, S.C.) Post and Courier in November.

Investigators were able to collect traces of DNA from several pieces of evidence, Buice said. “But it is only recently that DNA science has advanced to the point that those small samples could be analyzed and identified, using a process known as ‘touch DNA.’ ”

The touch DNA method analyzes skin cells left behind when assailants touch victims, weapons or something else at a crime scene, according to an article last year in Scientific American. The method was used in 2008 to exonerate the family of JonBenet Ramsey, the 6-year-old beauty queen from Boulder, Colo., whose parents and brother had been suspected in her 1996 slaying.

Horton, who was from Shelburne, N.Y., had been stationed at the former Charleston Naval Base in South Carolina and was last seen at a couple of bars in the area. His body was found Nov. 14, 1992, in a drainage ditch, according to The Post and Courier.

He had been shot in the chest and struck in the head with a blunt object, Buice said.

“Evidence also indicates that Horton knew his attacker,” he said.

The Berkeley County Sheriff’s Office and the NCIS Cold Case Unit are collecting DNA samples from a number of people as part of an ongoing probe, Buice said. The North Charleston Police Department also is assisting in the investigation.

Rosaline Horton is still grieving and still waiting for an answer to 17 years’ worth of questions about her son’s death.

“It never goes away, that hurt,” she said. “And now, with Christmas. He liked Christmas the best.

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