Playing with a Full Deck: A Unique Approach to Solving Cold Cases

In 2006, more than sixty Snohomish county cold cases were filed away waiting to be solved. Some of these cases were only a few years old, but others stretched all the way back to the sixties (Hefley, 2009). Even with breakthroughs in forensic technology, the sheer workload was too much for the cold case unit. It was time for a new approach.

Just one year prior, special agent Tommy Ray from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement had produced a cold case deck of playing cards to circulate among prisoners within his own state. Within three months, three cases had been solved because of the information provided by inmates (Janos, 2017).

The Snohomish County Cold Case Unit assembled a deck following a similar format as it’s Florida predecessor with funding from the Stilaguamish tribe. In 2008, it became the first deck to circulate throughout the state (Snohomish County). Eleven years have passed and the deck has helped lead to three solved murders, one pending arrest and one missing person found alive but there are still more than sixty cases without any clear leads.

The decks work by circulating bite-sized blips of information to thousands of individuals. Each card features a picture of the victim, the date of the crime, and a description of the case as well as a tip-line for inmates to call in. Callers have the option to remain anonymous. What the victim was wearing, the crime scene location, or vehicles spotted leaving are all details that stick out in prisoners’ minds. Prisoners spend huge amounts of time together in confined quarters and it’s quite common to discuss their crimes, including ones they have yet to be convicted of. With cash rewards, lower sentences, and the choice to do what’s right as incentives, dozens of inmates have called in to report information.

One such tip-off occurred in 2011 when an inmate called in after recognizing the queen of hearts. Susan Schwarz‘s murderer was arrested 32 years after her 1979 death. Her father was 82 years old when he heard the news.

Other cases include the murder of Patti Berry, the ace of clubs, and Tracey Brazzel, the ace of spades. Both women were murdered by the same man in 1995 but it wasn’t until 2012 that their killer was tried.

Regardless of how long a case has been cold, it can still be solved. An arrest was made April 20th this year for the 1972 murder of Jody Loomis, the ten of hearts, based on DNA from a coffee cup.

While the first cold case deck was distributed in 2007, the U.S. has used customized decks to pass on information almost since the county’s beginning. As early as the civil war, the U.S. military created decks featuring government enemies. During downtime, soldiers could memorize faces of people of interest while also getting in a good hand of poker. One such deck was issued in 2003 with information about Saddam Hussein and those associated with him (Thomas, 2019). State and county departments have used similar formats for fugitives and individuals with outstanding warrants (Janos, 2017).

King county produced a deck just a year after Snohomish and Spokane residents are fundraising for their own. Florida and Washington aren’t alone: other states such as New York, Idaho, Connecticut and South Carolina have also put together cold case decks. Only 52 cases can appear on each deck, so many precincts with playing cards have issued multiple editions of decks (Thomas, 2019). The cases with the highest potential to be solved are the first to be published.

Cold case cards likely won’t be issued nationwide. There have been violent outbreaks, even killings, over gambling debts within prisons so some state prisons have gone as far as outlawing playing cards altogether. Still, with an average of three cases solved per deck, it’s an ingenuitive approach to shed light on cases left in the dark for far too long.

Call the toll free line at 1-800-222-TIPS or the Sheriff’s tip line at 425-388-3845 if you have any information.

Hefley, D. (2009 Oct. 9). Hope for 63 Cold Cases in Snohomish County. The Everett Herald. Accessed June 4, 2019 from

Janos, A. (2017). How Inmates Help Solve Cold-Case Murders While Playing Cards. A+E Networks. Accessed June 4, 2019 from

Snohomish County Government. Cold Case Cards. Accessed June 4, 2019 from

Thomas, J. M. 2019. ‘Cold Case Playing Cards’ Distributed Among Prisoners Can Lead To Cases Being Solved. Ranker. Accessed June 4, 2019 from

Featured photo courtesy of Kevin Nortz

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