Yolanda McClary is really good at what she does: investigating crime scenes. In her 26-year career with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police, 16 of those with the crime lab, she worked thousands of cases involving murder, suicide, accidental death, domestic violence, sexual assault, battery, vice, robbery and burglary.
She’s also really good at helping the public try to understand the importance of what she does. McClary was the inspiration for Marg Helgenberger’s fictional character on CSI; she’s a former member of Dateline’s Unsolved Case Squad; and, without meaning to be, she’s the reason her grueling, demanding and sometimes filthy profession seems so glamorous.
Now, with former Texas prosecutor Kelly Siegler, she appears on Cold Justice, an unscripted crime investigation drama dedicated to unsolved murders in rural areas. The series resumed its extended second season on TNT in June.
Not everyone finds true-crime investigation shows comforting, but I do when they try to make sense out of senseless violence. Cold Justice does this by re-examining evidence from every angle to see what really happened. Sometimes this leads to an indictment or a confession. At the very least it makes for a more complete version of the story, and this helps everyone: local investigators, family and friends of the victim who haven’t had closure, even innocent people living under suspicion who can finally be excluded.
The crime scenes are McClary’s area of expertise, and her narrative of events is crucial to understanding each case. “If you understand your crime scene,” she says, “then you understand what your suspect really did—hopefully from beginning to end. This is also a way to go after your suspects. You understand what they did, versus guessing at what they did.”
Listening to McClary speak, in person or on the show, is reassuring even when she’s describing horrific events. She is grounded, logical and empathetic; it also helps that she makes sure I can follow just about everything she says during our interview. Like a good storyteller, she draws a listener in without dumbing anything down, a skill honed through testifying in front of juries.
“I learned a long time ago that the big fancy words don’t help you,” McClary says. “So I just went back to normal English—things we all get. Even on TV, you never hear me talking in big technical terms. I do when I’m in a lab, talking to my colleagues and associates, naturally. But when I’m talking to somebody who doesn’t do what I do for a living, I don’t.”
McClary uses the present tense a lot, which gives a sense of immediacy to what she says, and sometimes slips in and out of the second person so that “you” become part of the narrative. This can be disconcerting because the stories are all true, and all terrible, not just from the show, but from her entire career.
“I quit counting after 7,000 crime scenes,” she says. “I probably saw some of the worst things that a human can do to another human.”
On Cold Justice, McClary puts the narrative of a crime scene together in the same place the murder occurred. For “Hiding in Plain Sight,” from Season 1, she walked through the house that once belonged to Eric Baxter, a well-liked Tennessee grocery store owner who was shot to death in 1998. She wondered, for example, why he’d been found in the hallway. There were no signs of forced entry, and it seemed unlikely that after opening the door to a killer he would knowingly back himself into a dead end. Maybe he’d been leaving the bedroom? Of the two suspects, it made sense to her that the victim’s lover would come in through the front door, being familiar with the house, but that the other, a disgruntled employee, would be more likely to use the back door. At that point, the backyard became an important part of the crime scene.
“When you’re there, you can see, oh, my God: [the suspect] could just literally sit back here in this fenced area and watch him. He was talking to his best friend on the phone, while the suspect was sitting in the back, just waiting for his moment. And the dogs started barking, and he let the dogs out. But he never locked the door.”
From there my mind jumps to questions like, What kind of creepy person could bring himself to that? What was he thinking while he sat in the dark, watching the windows? But those questions, I realized while talking to McClary, are the stuff of fiction—details us civilians need in order to find such a violent act believable in terms of character.
But in McClary’s kind of narrative, what matters is what she sees when she looks at the scene. Given the known elements—the location of the body, the dogs barking, the sight lines from the backyard, the little sensor on the back door that chimed when opened (which the lover probably knew about, but not the employee)—what probably happened was this: Baxter’s dogs barked at the murderer waiting in the darkness, he let them out without knowing why they were barking, went into the bedroom, heard the sensor chime when the killer entered, and was in the process of coming back out when he was shot in the hallway.
“In a lot of our cold cases, we don’t have a lot of evidence,” McClary says. “You’re going to have to go more into your expertise on what you’ve seen over the years, how something is likely to have happened. And that happens on these cold cases a lot.”
In “Copper Dollar Ranch,” the team investigated the 1983 double murder of a young couple in Iowa, a case that McClary describes as being at the center of two different stories: Half the small town still believed the murders of Steven Fisher and Melisa Gregory were meant as a threat to their drug-smuggling landlord, while the other half were convinced that Fisher’s estranged 20-year-old wife, Terri, had killed them out of jealousy. Both victims were beaten severely. Steven had been left to bleed to death in the mud outside, while Melisa was attacked in bed and finally killed in the front area of their tiny trailer.
“That was a fascinating crime scene,” McClary says. “I never understood, why not just kill Melisa in the back bed? She’d been hit back there. She was hit hard. It already stunned her, and she could barely walk to the front. Why walk her up there? And I never got that until we were there. I was looking out the door, and I thought, oh, my God, Terri wanted Melisa to see Steven—that she’d already beaten him to a pulp and that he was dead.”
After so many years, the families of these and many other victims now know what happened, and there is a lot to be said for knowing the full story. But that doesn’t mean it’s pleasant information to deliver.
Early in each episode, McClary and Siegler meet with a victim’s family, to hear from them about the person they lost. And each episode ends with seeing the family again, to let them know what, if anything, has changed with the case. It’s easier, a little, when there is good news. “You can feel them, at that moment. You can literally just feel their emotion,” McClary says. “It’s so overwhelming.”
Sometimes, even when the team has done its best, parts of a story are still missing. What does it mean for those families when a murder cannot be solved … or can be solved, but not proven?
“Families think after years go by that nobody cares: It’s been 10 years, it’s been 15 years, they never even open that file anymore. They do. They just don’t always have any place to take it,” McClary says. “I think that’s the most important message for families out there who think law enforcement doesn’t care. Trust me, there’s a detective sitting there with that file who cares very much.”
Since its premiere in September, Cold Justice has helped local law enforcement agencies secure 12 arrests, eight criminal indictments, four confessions, two guilty pleas and a 22-year prison sentence. The series airs at 9 p.m. Fridays on TNT.