ONAWA, Iowa - Bringing up unsolved murders can be a double-edged sword.
On one hand, victims' families hope new stories and information can cut through years of mystery and uncertainty and bring to justice the person responsible for their loved one's murder.
On the other hand, it can cut deep, uprooting painful memories.
Jody Ewing of Onawa knows those feelings only too well. She founded www.iowacoldcases.com, an online resource with information on unsolved murders and missing people in Iowa.
And not only is she its founder, she's one of its users.
In 2007 Ewing's stepfather, Earl Thelander of Onawa, died from burns received from an explosion after copper thieves stripped propane gas lines from a rural residence he was preparing for a renter. The thieves were never found and his death has become one of the cold case profiles on her Web site.
"It doesn't matter how many years have passed, the families never forget, and most of them didn't give up on trying to find out who did it," Ewing said.
"A year or two goes by and people in the community tend to forget about someone that was killed ... yet the family is acutely aware of it every day, even 30-40 years down the line."
Ewing, 51, is a former newspaper reporter turned cold-case researcher and Web site developer. She studied criminology at Iowa State University and works full time on Iowa's only detailed cold-case Web site. She receives correspondence from the public and families daily on unsolved murders or missing persons in the state.
Iowa Cold Cases, a non-profit organization run by volunteers, was founded in 2005. Its Web site lists about 300 victim profiles, including photos and stories culled from available public resources, such as court records, newspaper articles, and information from family members. Some cases are not yet on the Web site.
Ewing spends her days speaking to law enforcement officials and families of victims, researching and reading old newspapers.
"It's amazing the number of the cases where people know who did it and the law enforcement is very much aware of who did it and they don't have sufficient evidence to prosecute them," Ewing said.
She said that is one of the hardest things to explain to people who write her with details about cold cases. She's received e-mails questioning why she doesn't have certain facts on the Web site. But, she says, if police tell her something is off record then she keeps it that way.
"Families think that the police aren't doing anything, but the police are; they may not contact the families as often as they like, but they are doing things," Ewing said. "Some officers will speak fairly openly off the record and let you know why they can't release information."
Ewing said she often becomes close with the families of victims and she wishes she could help them even more. She said families get discouraged because witnesses sometimes keep quiet out of fear of retaliation.
"I can't imagine staying silent about something like that if I knew who was responsible," she said. "Families offer cash rewards and no one comes forward."
Ewing said she wrote cold case stories for the Sioux City Weekender and found that there was little information about the cases available online. She launched her Web site shortly thereafter and her volunteer research staff is slowly growing to a handful of people.
She recently began speaking with a certified forensic linguistics examiner (specializing in the scientific examination of questioned documents) who plans to volunteer time for her Web site.
"I'm trying to keep them (cold-case stories) alive," she said. "It gives them the chance, even if it's just an itty-bitty paragraph in the paper on the anniversary of the death, it's a reminder that we haven't forgotten and the police are still looking."