Desertion cold case solved after 32 years

  • Published
  • By Dr. Deborah Kidwell
  • OSI Command Historian

In mid-July 2014, a published OSI manual provided the foundation to establish a Cold Case Investigations Program. The manual defined a cold case as “any case that has gone unresolved due to a lack of leads, subjects, passage of time, case activity, etc., and for which the applicable statute of limitations has not expired.”

The Cold Case team’s first goal was to assess unsolved cases, and then to establish an order of priority for investigations. OSI leadership aligned the program under the unit responsible for overseeing operational activities, then known as the Investigations Collections Operational Nexus (ICON) Squadron, as this organization allowed unlimited access to analytical, psychological and forensic support.

The initial purpose of the Cold Case Program was to assess unresolved murder, sex offense, missing persons, kidnapping and fugitive retrieval investigations. The team reviewed open cases to determine which fit the definition and gave the higher priority to completing investigations that seemed to have the highest probably of resolution.

In 2020, OSI’s Cold Case Team reports the Air Force has 52 service members classified as deserters, with the oldest case dating back to 1967 and the most recent from April of 2019.  

In early 2016, OSI probationary agents working at Detachment 114 at Tinker Air Force Base near Oklahoma City, located and arrested a deserter 32 years after the fact. This case was reinitiated by the ICON, now OSI Center, in August of 2015 and in early 2016 the OSI Center sent a firm lead to the detachment, whose agents had been considering a strategy to solve the case.

Later that day, an Oklahoma Highway Patrol Trooper contacted agents with a possible sighting of the deserter. The Trooper also provided the current driver’s license photograph of the subject.  Agents coordinated with the Cold Case Team to review the facts and circumstances of the case as well as gain advice on the best way forward. They contacted the United States Postal Service to obtain the names of individuals who were receiving mail at potential residences of the subject, provided through coordination with the Internal Revenue Service.

Several locations agents visited came up empty. While agents were leaving another possible residence, a vehicle pulled into the driveway. The woman stepping out of the vehicle matched the description of the deserter. She checked the mailbox at the property and then returned to the vehicle. Agents followed the suspect to a WalMart parking lot where they coordinated with the trooper to pull the vehicle over for a broken brake light. Mary Harrington was finally in custody and charged with desertion, after 32 years. During the subject interview, Ms. Harrington confessed to the crime.

However, Harrington’s confession contained additional news to the arresting officers.  Harrington told agents she left Randolph AFB, Texas, in 1984, when she was 20 years old and used a deceased cousin’s birth certificate to obtain a state identification card. She then married and sold fruit on the side of the road with her new husband to provide income while keeping a low profile, but was caught sometime after her initial desertion and returned to military custody.  

During this time, she was restricted to the dorms when she received word that her mother was ill and concerned that Harrington would be sent to prison. Harrington had her husband pick her up and they drove off base to continue life in desertion, until she was caught again in 2016.  She was prosecuted under the Uniform Code of Military Justice and given a sentence of 94 days confinement, a reduction in rank to E-1 and a Bad Conduct Discharge.

This case represents several “best practices” of OSI law enforcement efforts. One agent noted that, “Although good paperwork and records checks are important in our line of work, going out in the field can also make or break a case.” Another noted this case highlighted the importance of liaison --“As probationary agents, we had the right introductions and knew how to get the right people for assistance because of previous liaison.”

Other best practices illustrated by this case include the importance of persistence and finding creative ways to search for suspects that might seem like searching for a needle in a haystack, but can actually pay off under the right circumstances and a little luck.

The case also showcases the significance of the Cold Case Team ensuring justice is served.

On the lighter side, agents recalled landing in a bit of hot water because they detained Harrington without a formal operations plan and noted the legal office was not thrilled the arrest took place on Friday afternoon. However, they found a way to capitalize on their unique opportunity.