Turning a ‘Cold Case’ Into Light for Others
His father’s murder went unsolved. But Backmann did not give up. Today his organization, Project: Cold Case, assists families and keeps memories alive.
Society today seems obsessed with "True Crime" stories, but gives
less thought to the people most directly affected by them.
need look no further than your podcast directory for proof. Shows about crime
and murder consistently rank among the most popular.
However, in the real world, an unsolved homicide leaves grieving families and loved ones looking for answers — which many not ever arrive.
Our guest Ryan Backmann knows this experience all too well.
He is the founder and executive director of Project: Cold Case, a nonprofit based in Jacksonville, Florida, that supports families who have lost a loved one to unsolved homicide.
Ryan started the organization after his own father was killed by a
perpetrator who remains unknown to this day.
Ryan says he learned many terrible but valuable lessons while
trying to navigate the aftermath of his dad's senseless killing.
For example, how to deal with law enforcement when an investigation goes cold. Or how to cope with loss. And, eventually, how to carry on with life.
More people than you'd expect have to deal with these problems. Since 1980, an estimated 200,000 murders have gone unsolved.
In this episode, you'll hear how Ryan discovered a sense of community and purpose within his personal tragedy — and turned it into hope and healing for others.
was nominated by listener Colin Miller, who told us about Ryan during our most
recent $50 Thank You Campaign. Thank
- The moment Ryan decided to use his tragic experience to help others (6:21)
- Surprising information that is often kept from families after a homicide (7:56)
- How Ryan's real-life experience was very different from TV crime shows (11:14)
- What Ryan struggles with most about his dad's case (19:50)
- The effects of true crime entertainment genre on families of murder victims (20:49)
BACKMANN: Thank you, Frank. It's great to be here. I really appreciate it.
BLAKE: So Project Cold Case is a one-of-a-kind organization that, as I
understand it, was born out of your desire to serve families who've lost loved
ones to unsolved homicides.
Would you give some of the background around the project?
BACKMANN: Yeah, so that really was the foundation, was to help families going
through something tragic.
And that's because I went through something tragic.
In 2009, I got a knock on my door from law enforcement letting me know that my father had been murdered earlier that day. This was October 10th, 2009.
was a construction worker and he would pick up side jobs on the weekends to
make extra money.
And he was working on a Saturday afternoon, by himself in a newly renovated office building when somebody walked in, robbed him, shot him, and ultimately killed him.
lived long enough to call 911 and spent the last six minutes of his life on the
phone with a 911 operator trying to describe the man that had just shot him.
And no matter what kind of background you have, no matter what experiences you've faced and struggles you face in your life, I don't think there's any way to prepare for the moment when somebody comes up and tells you that's somebody you love has been murdered.
it definitely changed the trajectory of my life.
I was a project manager and at an architectural firm at the time, the recession had hit quite hard and that industry was struggling as it was.
So it wasn't but a few months later that I also lost my job. And so I found myself at a really low point where I had lost my dad.
There had not been an arrest made, there were no leads coming in. I had lost my job.
I was married for two years and really struggling with where I was supposed to be, what I was supposed to do and how I was supposed to cope with this.
And a non-profit that unfortunately is no longer around, but that was based here in Jacksonville, Florida, reached out to me and offered a men's only support group.
Because sometimes us guys don't like to talk about our feelings.
I showed up in that support group having lost my dad and job in a relatively
short period of time.
And I found myself in a room with three other men who had all lost children to homicide. And that gave me perspective.
BLAKE: Lost children to homicide?
BACKMANN: Right? Yeah.
BACKMANN: There was four of us in that room.
Three of them had lost children to homicide.
One at a high school, one in a attempted carjacking, and then one in another robbery.
And so when you're surrounded by people that have somehow figured out a way to carry on their life after experiencing the worst loss possible, be upstanding members of society and somehow figure out a way to get up every day, I found it inspiring.
And I recognized that moment in my life where I decided, like I am not going to use this as an excuse to be depressed, to be sad, to get people to feel sorry for me.
to do something good out of this.
And I started volunteering for that organization a short time later.
Within a year of my dad's murder, they had offered me a job as a victim advocate, and I started helping other families that had lost loved ones to violence.
And what I noticed during that journey, which was about four years, was that there was kind of a void in services for families that didn't have an arrest.
I really noticed that void and I thought, "Somebody should do
something. Why not me?"
BLAKE: And your site, your effort has grown since the start. Maybe describe a
bit what's happened over time with Project Cold Case.
BACKMANN: Yeah, so we started with that base foundation: We care and your loved
one's not forgotten.
And then quickly it started to evolve that we could do a little bit more.
In my situation, I had a very good relationship with the lead detective on my dad's case.
I had kind of used being personable and outgoing and an extrovert to my advantage to meet and network with other law enforcement.
One of the things as a family member of a homicide victim is, even
you are kept out of the loop. You are not in that inner circle.
So a lot of families don't know things you would think they would know.
Like how many times their loved one was shot. Or where on their body they were shot or injured. How many times they were stabbed.
Whether they were assaulted and how they were assaulted.
things are kept from the family a lot of times as well to protect the integrity
of the case.
And that to me is very important. Working with law enforcement and learning how important that is. But I think there's room there.
Early on, it's important when you start to get 5, 10, 15, 20 years removed from a case, I think it's time to share with these families.
kind of became that conduit and Project Cold Case became that conduit where we
built a respectful reputation with law enforcement.
And I could go in and talk to law enforcement and have a seat at their table, and then I could go back and sit down with the family and I could say things to the family that maybe law enforcement couldn't say or that wouldn't be taken as well coming from law enforcement.
But because I had been in that position, because I had experienced this kind of loss, families took things from me a little better.
quite honestly, there was a trust there. It was an automatic trust between us
where there might not be with law enforcement.
And so I took that very seriously to be that bridge between law enforcement and families.
And very proud of some of the things we do at our office now where we host meetings with law enforcement either via Zoom or in our office and families come to our office.
We host support meetings both in-person and virtual. So families from all over the country can be in an environment where others know what they've been through or something similar.
FRANK BLAKE: Ryan, people who visit your site are invited to submit a case. There's a little submission in the upper right-hand corner of the site.
How often do new cases come in?
BACKMANN: So we get cases fairly regularly. I would say probably three or four
BACKMANN: So the criteria is very basic.
A family member has to submit it, has to be at least a year old, and that's just to give law enforcement time to...
Cases can still be very active at a year, but at a year, law enforcement usually knows which direction that case is going, whether it's going to end in an arrest or whether it's likely not to.
then the third bit of criteria is that it actually has to be determined a
homicide by the medical examiner or coroner.
And that's simply because we already face a wide spectrum just focused on unsolved homicide.
There's lots of little caveats and issues that we deal with. We are not investigators.
We don't have the tools to look at and give an opinion on suspicious deaths or suicides that have been determined suicide, but the family feels like may not be.
know those happen.
FRANK BLAKE: It's
interesting, you watch shows like CSI and Law and Order, and it's not that they
make crime solving look easy, but it makes it seem like more often than not,
crimes are solved.
The statistics aren't that way at all. Right?
BACKMANN: Right. Correct. So again, Frank, you hit on something.
When my dad was murdered, my experience with criminal justice and law enforcement was TV.
So I pretty much expected that I was going to be getting a call very soon after the incident telling me that an arrest had been made.
But then days turned into weeks and weeks turned into months, and now months have turned into years, and that call has never come.
started to feel like I was the only one that had had an unsolved case.
So I reached out to the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office, which is where my dad was murdered. They were the investigating agency.
And I asked them, this is a number of years ago now, but I asked them, how many unsolved cases they had, unsolved murders they had, and they said 1100.
that was in one city, in one county in Jacksonville. And I was shocked.
To date, there's an estimated 270,000 unsolved murders in the United States.
Back to 1980.
BACKMANN: Remember, each one of those victims has an unknown number of
survivors and family members and friends and colleagues and neighbors connected
And so the ripple effect of these homicides is really, really long-lasting.
And when you don't have any answers, I don't use the word closure because no matter what happens in my dad's case, he's gone, right?
I mean, I'm never going to have him back for a Thanksgiving dinner or to spend time with my kids.
don't use that word closure, but we don't have any kind of resolution and no
answers as to who did this or why. And that really, really weighs on our
FRANK BLAKE: So Ryan, I mean obviously given the response to your project, the huge need for connecting with people, but at the same time, just as you say, and I've got to believe most of the folks who come to your site and engage their cases aren't ever solved.
How do you define success? What is it for you that you say, "This is what we're about, this is what we're trying to do?"
BACKMANN: I love this question, Frank, and I really appreciate you asking it,
because we struggled with that early on.
Because whenever I present Project Cold Case to a group, whether it's a group of law enforcement officers and investigators, or a group of Rotarians, civic groups, it doesn't matter.
I always get the question, "Well, how many cases have you solved?" And that kind of sets a benchmark that success is solving a case.
we're not investigators. We're literally here for these families.
From the moment they reach out to us forever, as long as they need us, whenever they need us.
But we had to redefine success because, we have right now about 1300 families that have reached out to us. The families have reached out to us and ask us for help, and work with us on a daily basis.
And of those 1300, we have about 40 cases that have been featured on our site that have had an arrest or a resolution.
And that's great, and everybody cheers and they're really happy for those 40 cases, and we are too.
that was your batting average in baseball, you would not be in the big leagues
for very long.
Those stats are really disheartening.
If that's your bar for success, it doesn't feel like we're really being successful.
But so what we've had to do is redefine that and judge that in a way of, how many of these families are able to smile again?
How many of these families are able to go back to work?
How many of these families are able to have their first memory of their loved one, is not a devastating memory of how they died, but how they lived?
loved ones are oftentimes defined by how they died. My dad was 56 years old
when he was murdered.
But if you Google him, the only thing you will find is how he died, not how he lived. So a lot of times we try to enforce and encourage and raise awareness and share the stories of life.
what we want is for our families, their first memory to be a happy memory and
not that sad memory of how they died.
I have a staff, an amazing staff.
I mean, there's only four of us right now in the office, four paid staff. And then we have interns from a couple of different universities around here.
And we are just constantly on the phone, constantly talking, sharing, offering advice, doing Zoom meetings, facilitating meetings with law enforcement, setting up meetings, encouraging people to seek out mental health counseling.
It's crazy how many families we talk to. The case is 18 years old, and we get, "Have you talked to a counselor? Have you talked to a therapist? Is there...?"
And they go, "No, no, it's 18 years old. Why would I need to do that?"
And it's like, "Because obviously you're still struggling with this and they can help."
So we deal with a lot of different entities. Another thing I'm really proud about is that, it's tough.
don't have a playbook that says as soon as somebody calls, this is what we say.
We have to let them lead and we have to meet them where they are.
So sometimes they're not ready for counseling. They don't want counseling.
That doesn't mean we hang up the phone and never call them again. We keep in touch with them and again, we meet them where they need.
Maybe they're desperate for a meeting with the detective on their loved one's case. We'll help them set that up. We'll help them develop the right questions to ask.
There's no statute of limitations on murder. So a murder case is always open until it's solved.
But families sometimes when they call, they say, "Is my loved one's case open?"
Well, the answer is always yes. It doesn't mean that it's assigned to a detective and it's active. So we just give them the right words to ask.
go with them, we can sit with them on Zoom or in an office and just really
provide them the support and kind of confidence that they need to get, at least
some of the questions they have answered.
FRANK BLAKE: So Ryan, in the spirit of your comment that too often the
victim is just known as the victim.
Do you want to say a couple of words about your dad and his life, the prior 56 years?
BACKMANN: Yeah. Well, I think I would, Frank.
And I think this is important for people to understand, is that these situations are not black and white, and they're not easy.
These are complicated relationships. They're complicated deaths, and they're complicated journey through grief and healing.
My parents got divorced when I was very young, two years old, and my dad was out of my life way more than he was in it when I was a child.
wasn't until adolescence and later in my teen years that my dad started showing
up in my life.
And it wasn't until I was, I would say 21, that my dad and I finally started a relationship that I had always wanted, and I think most children want with their parents.
And I got 10 years of that. And so oftentimes I tell people, "My dad and I had never been closer than we were the day he was murdered."
that was taken from me. I had just talked to my dad the night before, for over
an hour on the phone. We were bonding, catching up.
To have that call the next day was devastating.
I carry around with me a letter that he wrote me that is about five pages long on yellow legal pad, front and back.
That was his first attempt at apologizing for not being there for me growing up. And I keep that letter with me and I carry it whenever I go do presentations, it's in my little book.
And I always have that letter with me because I learned something from him that he didn't necessarily mean to teach me.
that was that, we all make mistakes.
You apologize for them, and you learn from them and you take responsibility.
And if you do those things, then people really shouldn't hold that against you later on. If you truly take responsibility and learn from it.
I don't think that we should constantly go back and remind you of the mistakes that you made.
honestly, Frank, that's one of the things that I struggle with in his case, is
not that the person that did this hasn't been caught and thrown in jail, under
the jail and thrown away the key.
That stuff's not important to me.
But the accountability and the responsibility, that was the lesson I learned most from my dad.
And it's the thing that I haven't received from the man that killed him.
And that's what I struggle with more than justice or what justice looks like for me, is accountability. And so those are my internal struggles.
internal struggle for me that the worst thing that has ever happened to me has
turned into the best thing that has ever happened to me.
I love my job, I love helping people. I love being able to provide something that these individuals and these families need and want.
It makes me feel great about what happened, but for my dad's own murder, it never would've happened.
FRANK BLAKE: That's so tough.
I've got a question. There's so many podcasts now on real crime.
I saw a statistic that there were like 200 in that genre that were launched in the last six or seven years. And some say that they oversimplify complex situations that are insensitive to survivors and victims.
What are your thoughts on that?
BACKMANN: Yeah, this is a really tough one because true crime, it's become an
entertainment genre. And murder should not be entertainment.
But the people that are participating in these podcasts and these documentaries and these streaming services, they're not bad people. They're genuinely interested in crime and in the facts of the case.
have to embrace those that are drawn to this genre, but we have to educate them
on, these are real people, these are real victims and real families.
And if you're doing a podcast where you don't have family permission or you're just taking bits and pieces from the internet that you found on blogs and news stories, you're doing a disservice not just to that family, but to all of us that have experienced this type of tragedy.
The True Crime genre and podcasting is very watered down. Everybody likes it. So everybody that has a computer does it and they don't all do it well.
we have families that reach out to us, they've agreed to do a podcast, then
they heard it and they're not happy with it.
Or they didn't agree to do a podcast and then they heard it and they're really upset about it.
And I think it's important for those that are doing these podcasts to recognize too, that this is an evolution, especially in cold cases.
not the same person I am today that I was the day my dad was murdered, the day
after my dad was murdered.
I said things out of emotion and I said things that were visceral reactions to questions that were posed to me by media that I'm not necessarily proud of and that I don't necessarily want living forever online.
I told a story recently about one of the early on interviews I did, and in my head, my dad was a blue collar guy through and through.
a construction worker and a big guy.
And I said, "The guy came in to rob him, demanded my dad's wallet. My dad's sitting there working on a Saturday afternoon in the middle of a recession to try to make extra money.
"And this guy comes in to rob him. I'm sure my dad told him to take a flying leap.
that's probably why he got shot and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah."
And a few days later, the detective calls me and he says, "Ryan, where'd you get that information?"
And I said, "Well, that's what happened. That makes sense to me. Guy came in, demanded money, my dad said no. And the guy shot him."
And they said, "Ryan, we really don't believe that's what happened. We don't think your dad had any idea the suspect was in there until he put the gun in your dad's side.
even speculate that maybe your dad jerked and reacted and that the person
accidentally pulled the trigger.
"We don't know. We don't think that it was... And then took his wallet."
And I'm like, "Well, that doesn't make sense. That's not a logical..."
But as a family, you're looking for logic. You don't have all the right information.
So out there in the world is an article where I give a erroneous account of what happened to my dad.
And if that picks up steam on some podcast or on some blog without proper vetting, it could obviously be detrimental to somebody recognizing a situation, having information and being willing to come forward.
really struggling to find that balance between using the true crime fan base to
help promote and raise awareness and understand the true struggle of these
And then the sensationalism and the lack of vetting, and honestly the lack of permission from the family. I mean, it's hard to understand when you haven't gone through it.
it's almost like a violation when you hear somebody talking about you and your
loved one, and they have no connection to you or your loved one.
We truly see value and the media and raising awareness for these stories.
We just want to do it in an appropriate and safe way with again, family
BLAKE: Ryan, if as you look at what you know now versus what you knew way back
after the event, what is it that you wish you could go back and say with the
knowledge that you have now?
BACKMANN: Oh, that's a good question. I wish that one, I would have reached out
for help earlier and valued that.
I wish that I had surrounded myself with people that had experienced this earlier on.
I wish that I was more knowledgeable in the investigative process, because it took me a long time to start asking questions that I wish I had asked early on.
I had a good relationship with the lead detective. I have a good relationship with the cold case detective that had been assigned to my case more recently.
But at the 10 year anniversary of my dad's murder, I did a public records request and received the report with supplemental reports and I had questions.
some of those questions, the answers were, "Yeah, we probably should have
done something a little different."
And at 10 years, I'll pose this to you, Frank. One of the things was in the 911 recording, my dad gives a description of the man that had just shot him.
It's not a very good description. It's a race and a color shirt and pants, you know what I mean? It's not very detailed.
But law enforcement chose to withhold that description, because that was all they had. And 10, no, 13, 14 years later, that description is really kind of pointless.
I don't remember what color shirt I was wearing yesterday, so I have a hard time believing that anybody remembers what color shirt an individual they may not know, was wearing in 2009.
BLAKE: Do you still hold hope that your dad's case will be solved?
BACKMANN: Yes, I do. I really do hope that it is one day, but that does not
become the focus of my existence.
I can't say I'm at peace with where the investigation is, but I understand where it is and I'm comfortable knowing that what has been done and that technology could change.
But one of the big things for me was, I had kids later on, and when they were born, I thought, "One day they're going to ask me a question about Grandpa Cliff and I'm going to have to tell them why he's not around, why they've never met him."
when I tell them, they're going to say, "Well, did the bad guy go to
Because again, the bad guy always goes to jail, right?
And I have to tell them that, "No, sometimes the bad guy doesn't go to jail."
And then that made me really think about what was going to be my next comment to them, was that I just accepted that and then said, "Fine, the bad guy wins"?
Or was it that we were going to do something about it and try desperately to make the world a little bit safer in the only way that we can? That I can?
And so that again, was part of my motivation to do this.
BLAKE: So I always ask this of guests on the show. If you look at, whether it's
related to your project or more generally in life, who has done a Crazy Good
Turn for you?
BACKMANN: Well, I have to say my wife, we were three days away from celebrating
our second wedding anniversary when we were notified of my dad's murder.
And this is not the life my wife signed up for. It was not the life that I had signed up for.
But she has been so supportive in allowing me to start this organization and allowing me to leave an industry that was a much higher paying and become a victim advocate and then start our own organization and self-fund it for over a year.
And the commitment that I have to make to these families, which means sometimes weekends and nights being available. She never, never gets mad at me about that.
And I don't know that without that support that I could have continued this. And I know we wouldn't be where we are right now.
BLAKE: And what's your wife's name?
BLAKE: All right. Well, thanks Valerie for this. This is wonderful. And Ryan,
if for listeners who are hearing this and would like to engage or learn more,
what's the best way to find out?
BACKMANN: So our website is projectcoldcase.org.
And we utilize social media, particularly Facebook a lot, to both share stories and raise awareness for cases, but then also to help educate the public on these things that we've talked about today.
What it's like to engage with somebody that has experienced this kind of loss. And so our Facebook page is also Project Cold Case.
again, we share everything that we're doing on there, almost at least a post a
day, raising awareness for these cases, making sure these families know that
somebody else cares.
And obviously ultimately asking the public to share those stories too in hopes that somebody will see them and come forward with the lead or tip that leads to a resolution.
BLAKE: Terrific. Well, thank you for your time, Ryan. Thank you for what you're
doing. And it's a wonderful thing.
I mean, it's great that you understand the pain that's felt, and for you to turn that back and help others is an extraordinary Crazy Good Turn. So thank you.
BACKMANN: Thank you, Frank. I really appreciate this opportunity.
From Frank Blake
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