When Mark Whitaker participated in a phone call to the parents of Lori Ann Slesinski last year to tell them an arrest was made in their daughter's disappearance, it was the highlight of his career.
It was a phone call 12 years in the making; Slesinski, an Auburn resident, disappeared in 2006, and her case eventually went cold. Whitaker, who was working with the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency's Cold Case Unit since its formation in 2016, spent 15 months obsessing over the case with his partner J.W. Barnes, with the help of Lee County District Attorney Brandon Hughes and the Auburn Police Division.
The group used its "war room" — an office in the Justice Center filled with files, notepads, maps and three oversized, marked-up white boards — to hash out the details of the case.
"Oh, we put so much into that case right here," Whitaker said. "It was 15 months of this being all I thought about ... Then the timing was right; I came to (Hughes), and I said, 'We've gone as far as I think we can go right now, and I feel really good about where we're at.' So, we went to the grand jury."
The arrest of suspect Derrill Richard Ennis occurred in Virginia in August, a dozen years after the crime had taken place.
"That morning when we were in South Carolina on a conference call with (Auburn Police) Chief (Paul) Register, calling Lori's mom and dad was just the highlight of my career," Whitaker said. "That's our biggest goal, man. These victims' families, can you imagine what they're going through all the time? We want to help them. That was very satisfying."
Now, the Lee County District Attorney's Office is focusing on prosecution, with the Slesinski case likely going to trial sometime in 2020. Hughes has hired Whitaker to not only assist with wrapping up the case but to lead the DA Office's first local Cold Case Unit.
"I think the days of just prosecuting the bad guys, locking them up — we've got to be bigger than that," Hughes said. "So, I'm always looking at what else can we do? How else can we shape what we do here for a bigger impact? As we were getting involved in (the Slesinski case) and getting to know Mark and J.W. and working with the APD, it began to take shape, you know. Like anywhere, there are cold cases here. I start seeing as this case is evolving that I think this is something we need to do. We need to have somebody here."
Whitaker's first day on the job was Jan. 2, and he has already begun sifting through old unsolved cases, vetting them for their "solvability."
"You have to have a solvability factor," he said. "Some are unsolvable; it's frustrating. You have to look at them in depth and then make your decision on which one has a solvability factor high enough."
Hughes said there are many reasons why a case can go unsolved, and as a case ages and avenues of investigation are closed off, law enforcement has to focus on all the cases coming in, which does not leave them time to devote to older cases.
Hughes felt that hiring a local cold case investigator would give the area someone who could be devoted to one case and for a longer period of time. But first, he had to get local law enforcement on board.
"No agency wants another agency to come in and say, 'All right, this is our case; we're going to take it,'" Hughes said. "That's one thing I thought Mark and J.W. did so well, was bridging that gap ... They did a tremendous job working with Auburn, and they didn't do anything without Auburn knowing about it.
"I really do think we established a blueprint for how to go about doing this."
Hughes met with the Auburn and Opelika police chiefs as well as Sheriff Jay Jones, and got support from all three men.
"There was nothing territorial about it; they were all on board immediately saying, 'Hey, this is a good thing because at the end of the day, we all want the same thing— to solve these cases.' That's important," Hughes said.
He added that bringing in a cold case investigator to go back over unsolved cases is not meant to be a jab at the law enforcement agency that handled the case at the time. Whitaker said that one of the most important things to solving a cold case is having fresh eyes on it.
"Just having somebody come in and look at everything they have, and not in a way of being critical of how law enforcement handled it, but to see how some pieces might come together a little bit now because we're seeing something they didn't see," he said.
Some cold cases have been solved through the utilization of new DNA testing or through accessing data from genealogy websites. Whitaker said these things are on his radar, but they're not always the most important thing.
"It's remarkable what it can do for us, but it's not all about DNA," he said "You've got to know how to talk to people."
And when working the Slesinski case, that's what he and his partner did.
"Back when the crime occurred, everybody in that circle of friends, they weren't really in a spot where they wanted to talk to police," Hughes said. "Fast forward a few years; they get some years on them. They mature. Some have families of their own, and all of a sudden it means something. So, you make that phone call, and they're like, 'I'm so glad you're looking into this; let me tell you about it.' In Lori's case in particular, there was nothing that Auburn police could do to make those folks talk. They just weren't in a spot where they wanted to do that, but time has a way of changing all of us."
As Whitaker helps close the Slesinski case, he will begin to work on another cold case. He has started his vetting process and flagged a few cases to consider.
Hughes said that since announcing the hiring of Whitaker, the DA's Office has received many phone calls of people asking them to look into different cases. He asks the public to be patient.
"We are going to do one case at a time because we have to," he said. "While we're not prepared to announce which case we're looking at next, we certainly have a few that have come to our attention from various resources, whether it's the public, local law enforcement, but just know it's getting worked on. We brought Mark in to do it; we're going to work him."
Once a case is selected, it will be kept private, unless making it public at some point would aid the investigation, and Whitaker will start the time-consuming process of working the case.
"I've got to spend a pretty good amount of time looking at everything in front of me and then starting a case back from square one," he said.
Whitaker started his career as a police officer in Montgomery and was a homicide detective there when he left to work for the Alabama Bureau of Investigation. He spent most of his career with the state, and worked in narcotics for many years, he said.
While working for the state, he suggested ABI start a cold case unit, and in 2016, one was created and he was brought on to be an investigator. He worked with the state Cold Case Unit until the end of 2018.
So, why his interest in cold cases?
"Because I had some. I had some cases that went cold on me when I was an agent with ABI," Whitaker said. "It does something to you when you have an unsolved case ... It stays with you forever."