The pain never goes away: Revisiting Texas cold cases

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ABC13 reporter Courtney Fischer looks into how a beer can could be the thing that helps solve an 18-year-old murder case. (KTRK)

This week we met five people from very different walks of life.

Virginia Freeman, 40, was a wife, mother and realtor from College Station who loved camping and volunteered as a wilderness leader with the local Girl Scout troop. Virginia loved her son and daughter more than life itself.

Walter Solorzano, 23, was just finding his independence. He loved having a good time with friends.

Sidney Martin, 68, served his country in the U.S. Army decades ago. Later in life, he spent most of his time with his children and grandchildren. He bought donuts or kolaches from the same shop in northeast Harris County nearly every morning, to share with his son.

Lesia Jackson, 12, was a junior high student in Montgomery County, the youngest sibling and only daughter in her family. She had strawberry blonde hair and thick tortoise shell glasses.

Amanda Fleetwood, 20, loved anime and was studying Japanese. She was planning a move to Japan to teach English.

These five people never knew each other but they share one bond. Each of them were murdered, and their killers were never found.

Click here to dive into a multimedia experience on each individual case and the breakthroughs being made to help solve them.

Investigators in Harris, Montgomery, Galveston and Brazos counties are working each of these cold cases. They follow leads and keep in touch with the families. These detectives spent hours speaking with me, showing the evidence, introducing me to family members, so we could share the stories with you.

By putting these unsolved cases back in the news, we hoped people start talking about them again. In each case, detectives strongly believe: someone knows something. For that reason, I thought families of the victims would be happy I called to ask them about the case.

That was naive.

Many family members were not ready to talk. We spoke over the phone, over email, over text at length. Everyone had the same question: why are you doing this? No one seemed to be angry. People were just confused. I didn't know how to take that. When I explained we wanted to feature their son / husband / daughter / sister / mother in our cold case series, instead of being excited, they sounded exhausted. But could you blame them? In many of these cases, decades have passed.

Today, the families are no closer to knowing who destroyed their lives than they were on the day they received that life-changing news.

The more I worked these stories, the more I began to realize: these families have put away the past. It's the only way to keep living.

When Lesia Jackson disappeared on September 7, 1979, she was walking home in rural Montgomery County. She had spent the day swimming with her two older brothers. When they were ready to leave, Lesia wasn't. So, they went ahead without her. Lesia was supposed to follow. She never made it. Six days later, Lesia's naked body was found by an oil worker about a half mile from her mobile home. She had been raped and strangled.

I tracked down one of Lesia's brothers. He told me the family moved to Oklahoma years after Lesia died. He was confused about why we'd be covering the case all these years later. I asked if his mother would be okay to talk with me. He politely asked I not contact her. The brother explained, they forgave the person who tortured and killed Lesia a long time ago. He said there was no point to rehash the case. Forgiveness is what they needed to move on and honor Lesia's memory.

I told Detective Darcus Shorten with Houston police about the trouble I was having finding families who wanted their cases featured. She wasn't surprised. The veteran detective has worked in the cold case division since 2001 and told me she runs into this constantly -- and she's not even asking people to share their story on television.

"A lot of times people have moved on with their lives and they're trying to establish a different life. Then, here we come back again, reinventing this, talking about this. A lot of times there is some apprehension," Shorten told me. "It's not always easy. They have moved on with their lives and here we are knocking, bringing back old memories, wounds and scars."

The challenge of reopening a cold case

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Detective Darcus Shorten talks about how difficult it can be to work with families on cold cases years after the crime has happened.

Shorten introduced me to Amanda Fleetwood's case. Amanda, 20, was shot and killed in 2004 by a stranger she and a friend met at a smoke shop on Richmond Avenue. It was a last minute stop to buy cigarettes. Surveillance video shows the suspected shooter strike up a conversation with Amanda and her friend Jonnie inside the store. He convinced them to give him a ride. Darcus said minutes later, the man shot both friends in the head then robbed them. Amazingly, Jonnie survived. Amanda died five days later.

Amanda's stepmother and father were brave to share their story with me. After Amanda was murdered, Anne and Dan Fleetwood played detective for years. They studied their daughter's case, watched local news and read the newspaper, looking for similar robbery shootings. Years passed and no one was arrested. Anne told me how the family started to put their lives back together, remembering the good times they had with Amanda.

"It seemed normal and then we get that phone call," Anne Fleetwood said. She was referring to my phone call, asking them to discuss Amanda's case. "Don't get me wrong, we're thrilled that it's being opened, trust me on that. But, it's now pulling out the memories, the tears, the pain, the anger."

Families reflect on the difficulty of revisiting their loved ones' cases

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A family talks about how hard and emotional it is to reopen a cold case.

As reporters, we cover tragedy almost every day. We spend a lot of time with families while they process pain. But this assignment was different. This was eye opening.

The families of Virginia Freeman, Walter Solorzano, Sidney Martin, Lesia Jackson and Amanda Fleetwood allowed me into their lives for a brief moment. They helped me understand how deep their despair is, explaining how the years form layers--like a shell--protecting them from further heartache. I respect these families. I appreciate their time. I will never forget these victims.

Click here to dive into a multimedia experience on each individual case and the breakthroughs being made to help solve them.

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