How Decks Of Playing Cards Are Helping Investigators Solve Cold Cases


Across the country, there are far more unsolved missing person and homicide cases than most of us want to acknowledge. The tragic truth is that as decades pass, piles and piles of these case files get pushed to the back burner due to a lack of leads. For that reason, detectives have to find creative ways to turn the heat up on these cold cases.

Prisons Distribute Cold Case Playing Cards

Back in 2005, Special Agent Tommy Ray of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement came up with a creative way to spark leads for the department’s coldest cases. After accidentally meeting with the wrong prisoner while investigating a drug case, Ray received an offhand tip from the inmate about an unrelated murder case.

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When that information ended up helping the detective solve a five-year-old mystery he thought had gone cold, he came up with an idea. By printing information about cold cases onto decks of playing cards and distributing them throughout detention centers, he would be able to prompt inmates to talk about open cases without ever stepping into the prisons.

The Cards Have Military Origins

Ray’s idea traces all the way back to the United States military’s use of playing cards in the Iraq war. Throughout the early ’00s, the military distributed special decks of playing cards to soldiers that helped them memorize the names and faces of Iraqi targets. These “most wanted” card decks are now valuable pieces of war memorabilia.

But they also inspired similar decks that were distributed around American prisons. For a few years, prisoners would play with decks depicting wanted criminals and fugitives. But Ray argued that they would be more effective if they showed missing persons, homicide victims, and pertinent information about unsolved cases. In 2007, the first deck was distributed in Florida.

More States Are Implementing Cold Case Decks

Now, Florida isn’t the only state using these special card decks. From what we can tell, close to half of the 50 states have started using their own versions of these cold case playing cards. As of 2021, the cards have helped solve at least 35 cases across the country. And as the decks reach more prisoners across the nation, that number can only go up.

The cards have proven so effective that they caught the attention of law enforcement in New South Wales, Australia. In June, news broke that the playing cards would be distributed across prisons in the region after a five-year push from the victims’ families.

True Crime Podcasters Have Caught On

But prisoners aren’t the only ones that could hold the key to unlocking these mysteries. As citizen sleuths have realized, all some cases need is a bit of attention. And, inspired by the idea, multiple podcasters have taken advantage of the unique storytelling ability these cards possess.

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Most notably, Crime Junkie host Ashley Flowers has started a podcast called The Deck, shedding light on these mysterious playing cards. In the show, Flowers tells the stories of missing persons and homicide victims that have found their way to these decks.

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