A Sock and a Snapshot: How a Temple Professor Helped State Police Crack a Cold-Case Murder
PHILADELPHIA — In 2015, Byron Wolfe helped a Pennsylvania State Police detective enhance 24-year-old photographs. The work took two hours, and Wolfe promptly forgot about the case, chalking it up as a simple favor, he recalled recently in his office on Temple University’s campus.
Last month, he was reading an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer about a major break in a cold-case murder that had dogged investigators for decades. The headline grabbed his attention. As he read, the details deepened his interest. And then it all came together.
On Sept. 3, almost four years to the day of Wolfe’s fateful meeting with Trooper Andrew Martin, Theodore Dill Donahue was arrested in the 1991 slaying of Denise Sharon Kulb, his ex-girlfriend. And investigators have since said an important step in bringing those charges forward was enhancements Wolfe made to those photographs, which, unbeknownst to him at the time, were gruesome mementos recently recovered by detectives.
“I was really just shocked to see the news,” said Wolfe, the head of the photography program at Temple’s Tyler School of Art and Architecture. “Some of it was just surprise. But I was satisfied, gratified that I was able to do something to help.”
Martin, a member of the state police Criminal Investigation Assessment unit, touted Wolfe’s assistance as an example of the collaborative approach his team takes to resolving persistent cold cases.
“It bodes well to show that these cases can be community efforts, and that when everyone gets behind them, it gets results,” Martin said.
Donahue was ordered held for trial on murder and related counts in Kulb’s death after a preliminary hearing last week.
Martin had dusted off Kulb’s case file not long after joining the unit in 2014. To him, it seemed as if there were still more to be done with the investigation, efforts not taken or limited by the tools available at the time.
Part of his renewed effort involved focusing not just on victimology, but on the man detectives had eyed as the prime suspect in 1991. Martin and his colleagues approached friends of Donahue, people who were close to him at the time of Kulb’s death.
Not long before, they told him, Donahue, now 52, had begun to discuss Kulb’s death with them, providing information that contradicted statements he had made to police 28 years ago. Through these conversations, Martin and his team recovered keepsakes Donahue had saved from that period.
Among them was a snapshot that appeared to depict Kulb, according to Martin. The small, darkly lit print had a timestamp from the same month Kulb’s body was found in Chadds Ford Township, Delaware County.
But the quality of the photo was poor. Martin knew he’d need some outside help in improving it.
He took that photo and a few others from the time of Kulb’s death to Wolfe. As an academic, Wolfe had some experience with using photos to decipher the past — a previous project for a colleague saw him working backward to determine Billy the Kid’s height using an old tintype of the legendary outlaw holding a rifle.
Helping to catch a killer? That was a new challenge.
“Whether you’re a photographer or a detective, one’s individual sense of awareness of what to pay attention to or what’s important is probably more important than the technology itself,” Wolfe said. “In 1991, those photographs existed, and this is not a critique on the investigators, but no one had that awareness to slow down to look at them.”
Through color correction and other editing techniques, Wolfe enhanced the photographs for Martin. His work uncovered previously unseen details, including that a sock found next to Kulb’s body matched one detectives pulled from Donahue’s apartment during a search in 1991.
After four more years of police work, a case that had been dormant for years suddenly accelerated. But Wolfe said the credit for that lies chiefly with Martin and his team.
“The detectives are the ones who went back and looked at the information,” Wolfe said. “They’re the ones who had the initiative to reexamine the photographs and said, ‘Can we get something else out of these?’”
Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, whose office is prosecuting Donahue, praised the measures taken by the state police, including their idea to bring in Wolfe.
“The truth is, at any given time, we’re looking at several cold cases,” Krasner said. “Fundamentally, it derives from the fact that we think we have a duty to do justice moving forward, but also to look backward, and sometimes that means rearresting somebody or testing DNA.”
Martin, for his part, agreed.
“It was just a matter of being methodical and taking the time,” he said. “And once we had built up that momentum, we were able to see them through.”
©2019 The Philadelphia Inquirer
Visit The Philadelphia Inquirer at www.inquirer.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
In The News
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) — A court in Saudi Arabia sentenced five people to death Monday for the killing of Washington Post columnist and royal family critic Jamal Khashoggi, whose grisly slaying in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul drew international condemnation and cast a cloud of... Read More
DETROIT — Becoming a lawyer in Michigan after a felony conviction is challenging, but it’s not impossible. Tenisha Yancey did it, before she was elected to the state House, even though law school admissions officials warned that she probably wouldn’t pass an evaluation that judged her... Read More
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s administration asked the U.S. Supreme Court to clear the federal government to resume executions as soon as next week. The emergency filing on Monday urged the court to lift a hold that a trial judge placed on the federal death penalty... Read More
ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Anne Arundel County Judge Laura Ripken has set a new date for the trial to determine whether the Capital Gazette shooter was sane at the time of the mass shooting, according to the Maryland Judiciary. Slated to begin March 4, the trial to... Read More
WASHINGTON — Roger Stone, the Republican political operative who famously predicted a dump of embarrassing documents on the Clinton campaign in 2016, got his first glimpse on Tuesday of the jurors who’ll decide whether he lied to a congressional committee about his communications with WikiLeaks. The... Read More
MINNEAPOLIS — Barton Scott found the girl on Snapchat. He pretended to be her friend and persuaded her to give up her password. Then Scott took what he really wanted: the photos marked “My Eyes Only.” Scott, in his mid-30s at the time, used the girl’s... Read More