Oxygen’s Cold Justice reaches a milestone on Oct. 1 as the true crime series celebrates its 100th episode. The show has persisted across multiple networks and different iterations, continuing to be the only program in its genre dedicated specifically to cold cases. It’s a special moment for a special series—so before it aired I spoke once again with Steve Spingola, the veteran homicide investigator who has played a major part in making Cold Justice what it is today.
In the 100th episode, Steve heads with Kelly Siegler to North Dakota to investigate the unsolved murder of Anita Knutson. He spoke with me about what continues to draw viewers back to the series, the experience of going from homicide lieutenant to cold case investigator and what he wishes the public knew about the work that he and his colleagues do.
“I think crime affects everybody,” Steve remarked as we discussed the longevity of Cold Justice. “If people recognize me at a grocery store or something, they always just want to talk about cold cases across the country. Crime is a fascinating thing. Everybody’s interested in crime.”
But as the series points out regularly, crime is never simple nor is the process of investigating it. Before the series, Steve spent years working as a homicide detective and later lieutenant. While Cold Justice also focuses exclusively on homicides, there’s a massive difference between working a cold case homicide and the active homicide investigation that TV viewers are familiar with. “It’s a completely different animal that you’ve got to go out and try to work with,” he explained.
“COVID really hurt a lot of law enforcement agencies’ clearance rates for homicides. It used to be about 2,500 cases a year went cold. Now you’re up to 6,500 to 7,000 cold cases, and there’s a lot of reasons for that,” he said. “Number one, there’s more homicides. Number two, there’s less law enforcement.
Number three, I think we are learning that we can’t rely on technology—DNA, genetics, fingerprints, things like that—to solve murders. And some of these cases where people have a little bit of knowledge, it makes them a little bit more dangerous. Those cases are a little bit harder to solve. So we normally work with circumstantial evidence versus physical evidence [in cold cases].”
It’s also a very different experience for a homicide investigator to have their work documented on TV. Steve finds himself getting recognized by the public when he travels to film Cold Justice, and coming in as part of a show can also change how local prosecutors view the situation, too, because this outside group is suddenly coming in wanting them to take action. But Steve’s attitude is the same as it was when he was a lieutenant. “I just go to work when I go for Cold Justice,” he reflected. “I go out and sometimes people tell me, ‘Hey, you were swearing at this guy,’ or something. It’s like well, sorry. This is the way we work. I’m not out there all the time trying to promote the entertainment aspect of it. We’re trying to solve these cases.”
“Most of the district attorneys are willing to work with us,” he continued. “Sometimes you touch a nerve on some of those cases, because the cases have got problems with them. [It’s] whether the district attorney wants to try to prosecute them. And of course, there’s the double jeopardy problem. If they lose, we can never go back after that. Once we lose, it’s all over with.”
Steve is one of several investigators who teams up with Kelly on the series, with that position changing in each episode. Rarely will you see more than one investigator on a case, but that doesn’t mean they’ve never helped one another out. “I’ve talked to Abbey [Abbondandolo] and I’ve talked to Tonya [Rider] a little bit about what they thought, and everybody’s got different ideas,” Steve said, though most of his collaboration is done with the officers and detectives at the departments the show visits.
“They pick out an investigator who basically works with the police department there from day one…And most of those people have more subject matter knowledge and expertise on that case, because they’ve been working on it,” he told me. “You keep your mind open about how cases can be solved, who’s the suspects. Once in a while we even get on the show and everybody’s arguing about what direction we should go. It makes for an interesting little testosterone bumping in the room, I call it.”
But the one person who steps up to take charge in every episode is, of course, Kelly Siegler. Kelly has a great talent for taking all the voices in the room and directing them like an air traffic controller. She’s the steady hand that keeps Cold Justice moving forward, and like his colleagues, Steve had plenty of great things to say about the seasons he’s spent working with Kelly.
“She’s a Type A personality. She brings her “A” game to every episode, and she’s got her own ideas,” he enthused. “It’s interesting, because I’d never worked with district attorneys until we had enough to make the arrest. Here we start out as a team. We’ve got the officers involved. We bring in the forensics people, some of the DNA people, some of the digital forensics with the cell phone technology, and we start working from the ground floor up.
“Kelly brings in that unique perspective. She prosecuted hundreds of homicide cases, including capital cases, in Texas. She brings in the idea that, hey, let’s not go too far down this rabbit hole because we’re not even going to be able to use it in court. Let’s get back on track here and see what we can come up with. And she is really a dedicated person with the families and things like that. She’s like the glue that holds those families together.
“Sometimes it’s difficult. We don’t solve those cases and she has to go back and tell those people,” he pointed out. “I don’t envy her for doing that at all, but she’s the person basically that created this show. And I think the ideology is that we go out and we work on these cold cases because other than her and a few other police departments that have major case squads, these cases will just sit there on the shelf forever gathering dust.”
Of course, Cold Justice simply does not have the time to show viewers the entirety of the team’s work or all of the factors that go into the investigation and prosecution of a cold case. 42 minutes has to sum up a whole week. So there are things that get left on the cutting room floor and aspects of law enforcement that viewers may not be completely aware of. For one, forensics are not the end all of a case—especially a case in which any evidence is years, if not decades, old.
“I think that’s the one thing that everybody looks for in a case, is the forensics. But it just isn’t there, or it can be explained away,” Steve said. “If the victim is found murdered and she’s got her husband’s DNA under her fingernails, maybe they just had sex last night. Maybe she was scratching her husband’s back. Maybe the DNA came from his car when she was driving. It can be explained away. We have to look for the motive, and that’s where Kelly brings some of her expertise in, talking about motive and what juries are going to be interested in hearing.”
There’s also the hard truth that despite having an incredible team, Cold Justice can’t solve every case just like normal homicide departments can’t. In fact, they have even more challenges to overcome because the show has to get permission from local police before they can look into a case. And even if they make headway, there are still reasons why local prosecutors may not want to move forward. It may be a lack of evidence or a legal issue that would make the case unlikely to result in a conviction.
“One of the sad things is we routinely get asked that “Can you come and take a look at this case in this state?” But law enforcement doesn’t always want to play with us,” Steve said. “They’re the ones that control the reports. They’re the ones that control access to some of the information that’s basically filed away, and we need that.
“It’s hard to explain to people why law enforcement would not want to cooperate with a television show or just other people to try to come in and solve a cold case. A lot of times when we pick up these cases, they haven’t been worked on for five to ten years,” he concluded. “Trying to find the witnesses again or the people that were initially interviewed and heard something or saw something—over five to ten years, 20 percent of those people die or you just can’t locate them. That’s what makes these cold cases really hard to go out and prosecute.”
It’s an uphill battle for certain—but one that Steve, Kelly and their Cold Justice colleagues have been fighting for 100 episodes and counting. They may not be able to fix everything, but the work that they do is important and shines a light on the difficulties that law enforcement and prosecutors deal with when a case goes cold. They’re not just making entertainment; they’re making a difference. And the show wouldn’t be the same without Steve, whose expertise and dedication are a perfect match for the challenge.
Cold Justice airs Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. ET/PT on Oxygen.
Article content is (c)2020-2022 Brittany Frederick and may not be excerpted or reproduced without express written permission by the author. Follow me on Twitter at @BFTVTwtr, on Instagram at @BFTVGram.