James Winston was always immaculately dressed. Since he was 10 years old, he would carefully iron his clothes, right down to his socks and underwear. He would later do the same for his kids, making sure they were coordinated from head to toe.
He would likely have done the same for his youngest child.
But on February 16, 2020, just two days after she was born, two people entered his apartment, shot him multiple times and left him to die, authorities in Wichita, Kansas, say.
Investigators and loved ones believe Winston knew the people who shot him, but the killers have never been identified. For more than two years, his family has been waiting in profound pain and frustration to find out who killed him and why.
“It’s like a hole that hasn’t been filled,” Winston’s mother, Sherby Miller, told CNN. “It’s just a piece of me that’s missing because I don’t know what happened to my child.”
Winston’s death is one of Kansas’ many cold cases – unsolved homicides, missing people and unidentified remains – that investigators have struggled to solve as leads dry up and they run out of potential suspects. But families of some of these cold case victims may soon find new hope for answers from an unexpected source: prisoners.
In an effort to turn up new leads, Kansas authorities developed a deck of playing cards featuring 52 of the state’s cold cases – each card displaying a victim’s picture, a short description of their case and a tipline number. The Kansas Department of Corrections says that it began distributing the cards over the last week to people incarcerated in the state’s prisons and county jails, in the hopes that some might know something about the cases and submit tips.
“Not every tip received leads to resolution of a case, but someone usually knows something,” state Secretary of Corrections Jeff Zmuda said when the program was announced. “Within Kansas correctional facilities and jails, we have segments of our population who want to do something good, perhaps atone for past mistakes, and they may have information about unsolved cases.”
Cold case card decks have been used in more than a dozen states, with some eliciting tips that revived stalled investigations, led to convictions and brought resolution to families who grieved for years without answers.
Winston’s loved ones were blindsided by his killing, telling CNN he was a dedicated father and aspiring entrepreneur who was widely liked. His mother and his girlfriend, Valyn Burrell, said they want justice for his six children, whom he adored and devoted most of his free time to.
“I don’t get it. Whoever did it knew he had kids. They knew he had family. I don’t understand,” Miller said.
Families of victims featured in Kansas’ card deck described to CNN a torturous wait for resolution, with some also fearing for their own safety as the killers remain uncaught.
But they all agree on one thing: someone, somewhere knows what happened. And they hope the playing cards may be the final push that brings them forward.
“One day, somebody’s going to talk and we’re going to get that break. And I hope I’m alive and on this earth to see that,” Burrell said.
The boy who begged to stay home
For more than three decades, Elizabeth Geer Jones and Melissa Bowell have agonized over what drove someone to kill their 11-year-old brother, Nelson Louis Jones.
They remember him as an adventurous boy who radiated mischievous, playful energy and led them in activities like jumping from the family shed and swinging like Tarzan from a garden hose he tied to a tree.
But on the evening of October 29, 1990, one of his sisters walked into his room and found him strangled to death.
It’s a day they go over in their minds, struggling to make sense of the moment that upended their lives. On the morning of his death, the sisters remember Nelson talking their mom into letting him stay home alone for the first time while the family visited a greyhound racing track in Wichita, about an hour and a half away.
When they returned home that evening, they called out for Nelson and received no answer. Thinking he may have gone down the street to a school carnival, they set off to search for him, but he wasn’t there. Finally, one of the sisters checked his room.
The sisters were just 9 and 10 at the time of Nelson’s death, which spurred a grief they said their mother never got over. “From the time my brother was murdered on, my sister and I did not have a happy childhood,” Geer Jones said.
Nelson is the youngest victim in Kansas’ cold case cards, and the sisters are hoping a break in his case could hold someone accountable for his killing and bring them a long-awaited peace.
“It would put my heart at ease because my mom passed away not knowing, and I know that’s the one thing she truly wanted was to know who murdered her son,” Geer Jones said.
Bowell thinks knowing who did it might give their family a chance to understand why Nelson was killed – bringing them a small amount of resolution.
“I wonder if that person has a conscience?” Bowell said. “Do they realize what they’ve done? Not just in taking the life of a child, but I felt like we lost our mom that day too.”
A grandmother ‘paralyzed’ by uncertainty
For a long time after Alex LaRussa disappeared, his grandmother Colleen Greenemeyer said she could hear his voice call out as she drove past the Solomon and Smoky Hill Rivers that stretch alongside Interstate 70.
“I would swear that I would hear him talking to me saying, ‘Grandma find me, find me. I’m here,’” she told CNN.
LaRussa went missing from Salina, Kansas, in December 2017. About a month later, police found his car abandoned by a river in a nearby town with his cell phone, clothing and wheelchair inside. He has never been found.
Before his disappearance, LaRussa had been struggling to mentally and physically recover from having his leg amputated that summer. For much of LaRussa’s life, his grandmother watched out for him, at times bringing him to live with her and trying her best to keep in touch as he went in and out of jail, mainly on burglary and theft convictions.
Greenemeyer recalls her grandson chasing his dream of playing football while he lived with her. When he went to prison, she said he took up reading, asking her to send him packages of books.
After LaRussa went missing, Greenemeyer moved out of her dream home about an hour away and returned to Salina to be close to her daughter, determined to find out what happened. When she got there, she said she became overwhelmed with grief.
“You truly are paralyzed,” she said. “And it’s really disheartening because I moved up here thinking that I can help or get to the bottom of this – that I would do this, this and this, and we would find out and I would be persistent. And I couldn’t do it, either.”
Without the solace of knowing what happened to her grandson, she has been forced to sit with the harrowing possibilities that flit through her mind.
“I would love to have him to come knock on my door but I’m almost positive in my heart, to the depths of my being, that’ll never happen,” she said. “If [we] knew he was gone, somebody killed him and they were going to pay for it, the relief would be unbelievable. Just unbelievable. You know, we can get a stone and put it somewhere for him and honor it. Have some place to put flowers.”
Like other cold case family members CNN spoke to, Greenemeyer has worried for her family’s safety. They believe LaRussa may have been harmed and for a long time after his disappearance, they feared whoever may have done so would target them next.
As the cold case decks are given to prisoners, Greenemeyer is hopeful her grandson’s time in prison will increase the chances that someone who picks up his card will recognize him and come forward with information.
“I believe there are people, yes, that know exactly what happened to him. They’re just not talking,” she said. “My fear is that I’m not going to know before I die. I’m 72 years old and I’m not in good health. … That is the biggest fear I have is not knowing.”
Cards have a record of success
While it’s difficult to quantify how many cold cases have been solved because of prison card decks, officials in Florida, Connecticut and Oklahoma told CNN their decks have undoubtedly led to prisoner tips that helped solve several cases.
In Connecticut, which has made five editions of its card decks, investigators have received more than 800 tips from prisoners and more than 20 cases in the decks have been solved, according to Supervisory Assistant State’s Attorney John Fahey, who oversees the state’s cold case unit.
“Getting their loved one on that deck and hoping a tip comes in that is able to generate other leads is the hope that that family holds onto,” Fahey said.
Florida no longer has a cold case card program, but the state had almost immediate success when it released its first decks in 2007. Within a year, investigators were able to make arrests in two of the deck’s cases after receiving tips from prisoners, Florida Department of Law Enforcement spokesperson Jeremy Burns confirmed.
One of the cases was that of 53-year-old James Foote. An easygoing man with a good sense of humor, Foote could talk to anybody, his family told CNN. Foote was retired and living in Florida with his family at the time of his death. In retirement, he began to obsessively pursue hobbies like fishing, golf, and – at the time of his death – karaoke.
On the night of November 15, 2004, Foote was on his way into a bar for a night of karaoke when someone shot and killed him. After months of investigation, detectives in Fort Meyers ran out of new suspects and the case went cold.
After nearly three years of trying to coax out new leads, authorities received a letter from a prisoner who saw Foote’s playing card. Investigators would learn that at least four prisoners had heard a man named Derrick Hamilton bragging about killing Foote.
In October 2007, Hamilton was arrested in connection with Foote’s killing. He pleaded no contest to a second-degree manslaughter charge and was sentenced to four years in prison.
Foote’s wife, Donna Foote, describes the years of waiting for answers as “torture,” but she believes the playing cards were vital to the case being solved.
“I don’t know if it would have been solved any other way,” she said. “I totally give all the credit to the cards.”
CNN’s Amanda Jackson contributed to this report.