Cold Justice star Steve Spingola: ‘It’s just something that’s in your DNA’

Steve Spingola (third from left) investigates cold cases in Dick Wolf's reality series Cold Justice. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Oxygen.
Steve Spingola (third from left) investigates cold cases in Dick Wolf's reality series Cold Justice. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Oxygen. /

Cold Justice’s Steve Spingola takes us behind the scene of Dick Wolf’s reality series and talks about what it really takes to investigate a cold case.

The Dick Wolf brand isn’t just crime dramas; it’s telling the stories of real crimes, too. The Oxygen series Cold Justice features former prosecutor Kelly Siegler and a crew of veteran investigators as they revisit unsolved cases around the country.

Steve Spingola is a fixture on Kelly’s team, having appeared on the show since its second season. A veteran of the Milwaukee Police Department, he’s worked on everything from violent crimes to the case against serial killer Jeffrrey Dahmer.

Though he’s retired from the department, he keeps helping others through teaching—and lending his years of expertise to these cold cases. Ahead of tonight’s episode, which features him working with Kelly on a mysterious death in Florida, Steve spoke to One Chicago Center about what effect the series has on these real-life crimes.

Learn more about Steve Spingola in our interview, then catch him in a new Cold Justice episode at 6 p.m. ET/PT tonight on Oxygen.

More from One Chicago Center

One Chicago Center: You’ve been part of Cold Justice since the second season. What is it about this project that continues to interest you?

Steve Spingola: It’s hard to explain. It’s just something that’s in your DNA; it’s just something that to me is worth doing. I get calls from people all over the country about if we can take cases—their children are missing or their mother they believe was murdered by their father.

And it’s really kind of gut-wrenching to read these stories where, now we’re into where people are dying. Mothers who reported their kinds missing in the 70’s, now they’ve got breast cancer and are dying and they never found their kids or had any resolution to what happened.

So to me it’s something that’s kind of personal, something that’s motivational. It’s hard to not do something when you believe that somebody’s been wronged in our society.

You have to approach a cold case differently than if you were the initial investigator. What’s the process when you do take a case?

Part of the problem is when these cases go cold, we’ve been to places where the police departments have been flooded or they’ve had fires. They’ve lost the evidence over a 20, 30 year period. Some of the physical evidence isn’t packed right, so we lose DNA. You really almost have to go back, take a look at what you have and what you don’t and the witnesses—to see if they’re still alive, including the police officers.

I think a big part of this is selling it to the district attorney. He or she is the one that has to prosecute this, and it makes the case exponentially harder to prosecute when people’s memories are faded or the evidence isn’t what it once was or law enforcement simply can’t remember talking to a guy. They have the reports, but it’s awfully hard to refresh your memory sometimes when it’s been 25 years. You can’t remember anything about the case.

Have you learned anything from working on these Cold Justice investigations?

Every day and it’s just amazing. You go and work with groups of people like Kelly and some of the investigators, or somebody in law enforcement, or you contact some of the labs…and you learn something new every day. I do a lot of teaching, so I go out and bring it to the young police officers of society. I pass along what I’ve learned to them as I’m getting older, and hopefully help them so the cases they work on don’t go cold.

There’s been a lot of talk about the role social media is playing in law enforcement. Do you think it has helped bring more awareness to some of these cold cases?

It does. I’m in Milwaukee right now and yesterday, they had a murder. A guy killed his girlfriend and took their kid, and one of the things law enforcement did was they went to social media to get his picture out there and his car. Social media makes it easier to contact law enforcement in general.

What I’ve noticed about the cold cases, a lot of times relationships between people have changed over 25 years. Someone was married to a guy in 1975 or whatever it was and maybe they lied for him originally, but over the years, they realized maybe he did it. Their relationship has deteriorated [or] they’re near death. They’re more willing now to give us a call and put something out there and maybe help us solve those cases.

You worked a lot of different cases during your career with the police department. Is there any kind of experience that’s been particularly helpful on Cold Justice?

Not just one, but it’s the totality of all of them. I’ve had missing kids, we’ve used dogs, I’ve had air searches, DNA, bodies that were buried. You take a little bit away from every case that you work, and I think that’s kind of what builds our reputation on Cold Justice, is that everyone has worked a variety of cases. Whether it’s Tonya [Rider] with sexual assaults, or me with homicide, or Johnny [Bonds] with the crimes unsolved.

I still call people all the time and get calls from people about cases. It’s all a learning opportunity. I tell my students that living is a lifelong journey, and so every day you can pick up something, whether it’s good or bad. It’s not only the successes but sometimes the failures that we have to document and explain to people too.

That’s important to know—that just because a case is documented on the show doesn’t mean it’s been solved. You’re not able to fix everything.

We just run into roadblocks. Whether it’s the suspect retaining legal counsel, the fact that we can’t get search warrants to go in and look for the bodies that we think are buried. Sometimes people understand that.

But then again when we have a show, we always get calls…sometimes it shakes people’s memory a little bit. That’s what’s nice about [Cold Justice]. Sometimes we pass those tips along to law enforcement after we leave their city and they continue to investigate it.

Which brings us to something important about Cold Justice. You’re not autonomous; you have to work with the police and prosecutors in each area you visit. How does that affect your work?

Sometimes we get a little negative feedback from police departments. A majority of large departments don’t want our help. That’s because they’ve got their own cold case units, they get tons of federal grants, and I think to them it’s a little bit embarrassing if we come in there and solve some high-profile crimes.

So we wind up with a lot of small town sheriff’s departments that are either undermanned, underfunded [or] didn’t have great forensic units or access to the FBI crime lab or anything. Some of these people are part-time police or sheriffs. These cases weren’t well investigated, they know they made mistakes on them, and they’re willing to put that into the news.

We get cases submitted a lot from the families, and the problem is when we contact the local law enforcement agencies, if they’re not willing to work with us it’s difficult to do any type of logistics or go there and look for suspects without their help.

So we usually wind up with the smaller police departments that want to solve these, and I think that’s kind of nice, because I don’t understand why anyone would accept an unsolved homicide as something that’s normal in today’s society.

You mentioned that you’re also teaching. What do you do outside of Cold Justice?

I teach early recruits and people that want to be police officers. I don’t get to watch television enough, so a lot of my students will ask what about this show? And I don’t have any idea what [they’re] talking about. [That] takes up a lot of my time, and I do a lot of reading.

I get cases every once in a while dropped off at my house. Just some citizen, or they’ll mail me birthday pictures of their kids, and it’s hard to not figure out what they need so I call Kelly and we try to see what we can do with some of those cases.

We’ve got a whole unit with the show that tries to do cold cases. They’re some of the best people I’ve ever worked with, and I’ve been fortunate to work with people like Kelly and other people that have renewed that entire side of me to go out and work on these cases.

More Cold Justice with star Kelly Siegler. dark. Next

Cold Justice season 5 airs Saturdays at 6 p.m. ET/PT on Oxygen. For more about all of Dick Wolf’s other series, follow the Dick Wolf category at One Chicago Center.