Foundation Partner ‘Project: Cold Case’ Helps Solve 1999 Murder
Founded by Ryan Backmann in 2015, Project: Cold Case is a nonprofit organization that works to put a spotlight on unsolved murder cases, and creates a supportive and understanding community for the family, friends and loved ones of victims. In 2019, the Finker-Frenkel Family Foundation presented Project: Cold Case with a grant to expand its reach to cold cases and victims’ families throughout the U.S.
On the morning of May 17, 1999, small business owner Saad Kawaf was getting ready to run some errands. He said goodbye to his wife in the home they shared in a gated community in Jacksonville, Florida, and made his way into the garage.
There, two knife-wielding assailants – a man and a woman – were waiting for him.
Moments later, Mrs. Kawaf heard a scream. Worried, she opened the door to the garage and found her husband being beaten and stabbed by the male assailant. Upon seeing Mrs. Kawaf, the woman attacked her. She dragged Mrs. Kawaf back into the house and bound her to a chair. For hours, both the man and the woman threatened Mrs. Kawaf and demanded money. When she finally relented, the two left.
By the time Mrs. Kawaf was able to untie herself and call for help, her husband had died from his wounds. He was only 39.
Although ample DNA was found at the scene and Mrs. Kawaf was able to provide a detailed description of both of her husband’s killers, for more than 21 years, the couple remained on the run. But over the past two years, Mr. Kawaf’s family has been working with Project: Cold Case to get renewed attention for his story. And their work has finally paid off.
“This was a family we had developed a really good relationship with,” said Ryan Backmann, Founder and Executive Director of Project: Cold Case. “We focus on the advocacy side of things with every family we work with, and in this case, that meant providing emotional support, facilitating calls and meetings with local law enforcement, and, critically, helping to get the case examined by genetic genealogists.”
Genetic genealogy is the process of using DNA testing to determine relationships between people. In cases with DNA evidence where the suspect’s DNA is not in any government database, investigators can use genetic genealogy to track down the suspect’s relatives, and ultimately pinpoint his or her identity.
Mr. Backmann says genetic genealogy has been the greatest breakthrough for cold case investigations since the discovery of DNA testing. This technique has proved to be revolutionary in recent years, after it helped to finally catch the infamous “Golden State Killer,” aka Joseph James DeAngelo, in 2018.
“This was a perfect case for genetic genealogy,” said Mr. Backmann. “Our local law enforcement partners had DNA from both suspects, but no match was found in CODIS. Still, we knew the DNA was there, and it had to belong to someone.”
With the help of genetic genealogy, law enforcement was able to identify the suspects as William Baer Jr. and his ex-wife Melissa Shafer. At the time of the murder, Mr. Baer was a police officer with the Jacksonville Sheriff’s office, but he retired from the force in 2002. Both Mr. Baer and Ms. Shafer were arrested on July 2, 2020 and charged with second-degree murder. They are currently awaiting trial.
While Mr. Backmann says the Kawaf family is delighted about the arrest, they are still working closely with Project: Cold Case as they move into the next phase of justice.
“This is all new territory for them, and the judicial process can be retraumatizing in some ways. We are helping them navigate all the interest from the press and providing support as they wait for the trial to begin,” he said.
Unfortunately, due to COVID-19 shutdowns, the court system in Jacksonville is currently backed up. Mr. Backmann says that while trials typically take between 18 months and two years to schedule, Mr. Kawaf’s family may be waiting a lot longer than that to see his killers tried and sentenced. Still, their 21-year search for those responsible has finally come to an end.
In a statement provided to Project: Cold Case, Mr. Kawaf’s niece thanked law enforcement for never giving up on her uncle’s case:
“We are thrilled. We are grateful. Not a day has gone by that we don’t miss our beloved Saad. The past 21 years have been the hardest to not only be without a man who meant so much to our family, but to know that the people who did this were not held accountable for their actions. We are grateful to the brave members of the cold case unit and all members of law enforcement who have worked tirelessly on our behalf to ensure justice and that Saad’s memory will never be forgotten.”
To learn more about “Project: Cold Case,” please visit: https://www.projectcoldcase.org/