Across the country, authorities have been increasingly using genetic technology to solve decades-old cases that had captivated the public and confounded law enforcement. But in Baltimore, where there are thousands of unsolved homicides, it has yet to occur.

The Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office is hoping to change that, creating a new cold case division within the homicide unit that will pursue funding for forensic genealogy testing — which involves using DNA submitted to family tree websites and famously helped solve the Golden State Killer case — and work with detectives to better strategize around unsolved cases that may be ripe for a fresh look.

Veteran prosecutor Kurt Bjorklund, who recently secured a conviction in a cold case killing in which the victim’s body was never found, will lead the effort.

“This is something we wanted to do to make sure we gave individuals and family members the opportunity to say, if we’re able to do it, we’re looking to solve the murder of your loved ones,” Baltimore State’s Attorney Ivan Bates told The Banner in an interview Tuesday. “But also, individuals who think they’ve gotten away with murder — they may get a knock on the door that may change their life.”

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Bates on Wednesday announced charges in the first case that the new unit will prosecute: the 2017 killing of an off-duty Washington D.C. police officer.

The case was not solved through genetic testing, but through a tip that emerged last year. Sgt. Tony Mason, 40, was sitting in a vehicle with a woman on Nov. 4, 2017, in the 2800 block of Elgin Avenue when someone shot up the car. Mason died; the woman was shot and survived. After a year went by without an arrest, officials put forth a $60,000 reward.

It wasn’t until last year that a witness was able to give detailed information that investigators worked to corroborate, leading to charges against 24-year-old Dion Thompson. Thompson, who was 18 at the time of the killing, is currently serving federal prison time after pleading guilty to possession of fentanyl and a firearm.

With hundreds of killings annually and a case closure rate that has been regularly less than 50%, there are countless cold cases in Baltimore, and it is extremely rare for cases to be solved after two or three years have gone by.

Bjorklund said the effort will start by sitting down with the Baltimore Police homicide cold case unit, which counts just a detective and two supervisors as well as civilian investigators, and undertake “a sweeping assessment of the cold cases that exist now, and start to prioritize the ones that have the most legs and needing of the most resources immediately.”

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“It’s going to be a triage at first,” Bjorklund said.

Bjorklund last year secured a conviction in the killing of Akia Eggleston, a pregnant woman whose body was never found.

“In that case, I probably spent 20 to 30 times the amount of time on that case than I did any other homicide in my career, and I don’t know if everyone would have that time to devote to it,” Bjorklund said.

Cases with potential suspect DNA samples will likely head to the front of the line. Prosecutors noted Maryland is one of two states that impose restrictions on how ancestral DNA can be used in such investigations, including requiring judicial authority to even get started, said Thomas Donnelly, deputy chief of the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office.

Authorities in Anne Arundel County recently announced they identified a second suspect in the 1970 killing of a 16-year-old girl using such genetic genealogy information.

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State Sen. Charles Sydnor, a Baltimore County Democrat, said the regulations were developed in conjunction with law enforcement and experts, in order to safeguard against abuses involving people’s genetic material. He said he hasn’t heard complaints about investigative work being stymied.

“Probably until you get to the time where [the technology] isn’t as expensive, you’re going to see it used that often,” Sydnor said.

Donnelly said city prosecutors have been meeting with counterparts in Prince George’s County, who received federal funding to aid cold case investigations.

Bjorklund will be a unit of one initially, with help from another prosecutor. Bates said he is hoping Mayor Brandon Scott will unfreeze 20 positions in his office to help grow the unit and others, but said it will be a slow process.

In the case of the D.C. police officer, the witness told police that Thompson told him that he had seen Mason and the woman in the vehicle parked on the street. Thompson “became paranoid ... and believed the occupants in the parked vehicle were there to either rob him or retaliate against him for the all robberies he was committing,” cold case detective Jill Beauregard wrote in charging documents.

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Thompson walked up to the car, said “yo” to the male occupant, then emptied the magazine of his weapon into the car, the witness told police. Members of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives told police that Thompson was the leader of a drug organization called “The Slickest Ones” that operated on Elgin Avenue.

Thompson’s mother said in an interview that she doubted the claims made in the charging documents. For one, she said her son had upon turning 18 received money from a lawsuit settlement in a case in which he said he was injured by a school police officer. Court records confirm that in 2014 a $70,000 judgment was imposed in his favor.

She said he would have had no reason to be robbing people.

“He had plenty of money,” Mary Thompson said.

She also doubted that he would have told anyone if he had committed a homicide: “He’s not the type of boy who would just do something and run his mouth about it. He ain’t stupid.”

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Thompson previously pleaded guilty to drug and gun charges in U.S. District Court in 2021, and was sentenced to more than eight years at a federal prison in New Jersey, records show.

Bjorklund said another one of his goals is to review case files and bring them up to date — “sometimes small advances can lead to charges down the road,” he said — as well as meeting with families to give updates.

“Updating them with honest and fulsome information about what steps are being taken, sometimes that is very rewarding for families to know their cases are still being worked on,” he said.

And he hoped that people with information who are reluctant to speak to police might feel more comfortable speaking to a prosecutor.

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the name of the Golden State Killer case.

Justin Fenton is an investigative reporter for the Baltimore Banner. He previously spent 17 years at the Baltimore Sun, covering the criminal justice system. His book, "We Own This City: A True Story of Crime, Cops and Corruption," was released by Random House in 2021 and became an HBO miniseries.

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