A Cold Case: How Private Investigators Can Give Back

photo by Adrian Dressler

photo by Adrian Dressler

A Virginia private investigator volunteers his time and expertise, hoping to help a grieving family find closure.

There is nothing worse than losing a child. I had the great misfortune of outliving my firstborn son. I know what it is like to be afraid of going to bed, because of what darkness and silence can do to a thinking person. I know what it is like to be afraid of waking up in the morning and having it hit you hard, like it just happened.

I know what it is like to walk through life every day with the anguish of missing a child.

My son was taken from me by medical complications from a birth defect, not by violence. I cannot imagine what it must be like for parents whose children disappear, and who must live with a terrible mix of hope and despair, wondering what happened and where their child might be.

When I got my private investigator license, I decided that I would volunteer to work on a cold missing-persons case. I wanted to help parents get closure, after all other traditional investigative means have failed and the police have stopped searching.

I searched the Internet for missing-person cold cases near where I live in Roanoke, VA. I kept returning to one case in particular: A 1998 homicide and kidnapping in Strasburg, VA — almost three hours from where I live.

I kept putting off that initial call to the victims’ family. I was a bit nervous about contacting them. Would they be glad for an offer of help, or angry that I’d dredged up the past? And I wondered whether I was prepared to make such a large commitment. This would take time. And there was also the emotional investment to consider. I would be visiting a very dark history, and the family would have to revisit their pain as well.

Almost a year later, I worked up the courage to reach out to Angie.

Angie lost her daughter and her granddaughter in a single tragic day. Sylena Dalton was just twenty years old when she gave birth to her little girl, Allyson. They lived in a small, two-bedroom apartment with Sylena’s mother, Angie.

If you’ve ever spent a night trying to comfort a colicky baby, you can well imagine what it was like for Sylena the evening of July 26, 1998. She was up all night with ten-week-old Allyson, who cried for most of the night. So it was no surprise to Angie, when she left for work the morning of July 27, that Allyson was asleep in the baby swing, and Sylena was lying down on the couch to take a much-needed nap.

What happened next has left investigators stumped for seventeen years.

baby shoes


Sometime that morning (investigators believe it was between 9:15 and 10:30 a.m.), someone entered the apartment through an unlocked door, stabbed Sylena in the chest five times while she lay sleeping on the couch, and left with baby Allyson. No one was ever charged, and baby Allyson has never been found. (You can read more about the case here.)

The state police worked the case hard in the beginning, but as most difficult cases go, the investigation slowed over time. Several different investigators have worked on the case, but it’s unclear exactly what leads they followed. Police departments tend to keep that information pretty quiet.

I reached out to Angie, the mother and grandmother of the victims, by email. I was afraid I would never hear back. But to my surprise, I received Angie’s reply a few hours later. She said she was interested, but she wanted more information on me. We exchanged a few more emails and then set up a meeting.

Angie is at the end of the line and holding on for dear life. With no new leads on her case, all she can do is hope and wait.

I met with Angie at a McDonald’s on July 28, 2015. I didn’t plan the date that way, but it just happened that we met one day after the anniversary of the murder/kidnapping. Right away, I knew I liked Angie. She is the typical hard-working American woman. But she carries something around with her that we cannot begin to understand. She wears it on her face, and it shows through in her eyes. You might not see it if you don’t know her story, but it’s hard to miss when you do.

Angie is at the end of the line and holding on for dear life. With no new leads on her case, all she can do is hope and wait. That is probably why she accepted my offer to work on her case pro bono. It wasn’t my investigative skills, but just the idea that something is being done. Hope is a strong feeling, and it’s even stronger when you have nothing else to hold onto.

The investigation has progressed slowly due to my other obligations, but it is moving along. I have since made a few trips to Strasburg and conducted a few interviews. I found out the media has reported incorrect information, in the little reporting they have done, and right now I have a few people of interest. The main suspect has always been the father of the baby, according to the media. But I’m not convinced. Then again, I have yet to interview him. Hopefully, that will come in the near future.

If you want to volunteer your free time and investigative skills, I encourage you to find a cold case in your area and get to work. The police get caught up with all their other cases that come in every day, and they don’t always have the resources to keep an older case actively moving forward.

But please keep in mind, this is a big commitment, and it will require a lot of your time. It will consume your thoughts and keep you up at night. But maybe, in the end, it will all be worth it. As Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

About the Author:

Christopher Borba owns Emissary Investigative Services, a Roanoke, Virginia investigative agency specializing in due diligence, corporate investigations, and executive background profiles. He served as an infantry paratrooper with the U.S. Army in Kosovo and Afghanistan. He also worked as a patrol officer and a detective with the Fayetteville, NC police department.