Behind a locked door in the downtown Safety Building’s basement, files from more than 300 unsolved homicides dating to the 1950s line the shelves.
Toledo police Detective Jay Gast is familiar with a good many of them.
Jay Gast stands in the stacks of cold case records in the basement of the TPD Safety Building.
A homicide investigator for 13 years and the department’s cold-case investigator for the last five, Mr Gast is retiring Friday, but his knowledge and experience won’t go untapped for long. After a two-month break, he will be back on the cold-case unit as investigator for Lucas County Prosecutor Julia Bates.
Mr. Gast, 54, will take the place of longtime investigator Tom Ross, who retired this spring.
“Jay learned from a master, and I think the cold cases require a lot of tenacity,” Mrs. Bates said. “There are a lot of loose threads, re-examining things. Picking at those old wounds is difficult, too. You have to be able to talk to these family members that are still around and try to be tactful and delicate. It requires very unique characteristics, and I think Jay will be wonderful.”
Before he joined the Toledo Police Department in 1985, Mr. Gast was a well-known basketball player for the University of Toledo. A native of Maysville, Ky., he said he came to Toledo after high school on a full basketball scholarship.
“I didn’t even know where Toledo was,” he recalled. “I visited a few times and I thought it was the coldest place on Earth.”
Still, he stayed.
He declined an offer to play basketball in England after college and instead applied to the police academy. From patrol officer to vice-narcotics detective, he joined the Crimes Against Persons bureau in 2000 and found his niche.
“Every once in a while I miss the 2 a.m. phone call on a homicide,” he said. “There’s a sense of adrenaline that you get with those because all of a sudden you flip a switch and you start thinking of all the things you need to do and coordinate, whether it be on the scene or the following day.”
Working cold cases is more methodical. It involves stopping and starting, waiting for lab results, waiting for ballistics results, and tracking down witnesses and re-interviewing them.
Lucas County Prosecutor Julia Bates speaks with Det. Jay Gast.
He worked on the Jenean Brown murder from 1983 — an investigation with the Lucas County Sheriff’s Office that led to the 2016 conviction of former Whitehouse resident Andrew Gustafson.
In all, the cold-case unit has cleared more than 70 unsolved homicides since its inception, which began with Mrs. Bates’ first use of DNA in 1998 to connect serial killer Anthony Cook and his brother, Nathaniel, to the 1980 murder of Tom Gordon.
That case led to a plea agreement in which one or both of the Cook brothers admitted to killing Mr. Gordon and committing seven other previously unsolved murders in Lucas County, most in 1980 and 1981.
Since then, the cold-case unit had numerous high-profile successes, including the 2006 conviction of the late Gerald Robinson, a former Catholic priest who killed a nun in 1980, and the 2011 conviction of Ronald Bowman for killing a 14-year-old Sylvania Township girl in 1967.
Mrs. Bates said that as technology advances, she expects new methods for solving old cases to emerge.
“People should realize we do not give up,” she said. “We don’t stop looking, and the more people we have helping to look, the better it is.”
Mr. Gast said there are a number of unsolved cases that needle him, cases he would love to solve when he gets back to work on the cold-case unit in August.
On Friday, he plans to sign his retirement papers accompanied by his two sons: Ryan, 29, from his first marriage, and 9-year-old Cole with his wife, Toledo police Sgt. Laurie Renz.
He’ll be missed downtown, but not for long.
Deputy Chief James O’Bryant, who joined the police force with Mr. Gast in 1985 and now oversees the Crimes Against Persons bureau, said Mr. Gast has been effective on cold cases and really in every role he’s played.
“He strives to do well, to treat people well,” Deputy Chief O’Bryant said. “He’s just a good man, and I think he’s excellent with the families in the cold cases. He shows compassion and strength, and he’s very balanced.”
Both Mrs. Bates and Deputy Chief O’Bryant remember watching Mr. Gast on the basketball court at UT in the early 1980s.
The jump to police work is not so surprising.
“If you look at the landscape of police officers, a lot of them have been on teams,” the deputy chief said. “The police department is the consummate team.”
Mr. Gast concedes he hasn’t lost his competitiveness, which carries over to his work on cold cases.
“I make no bones about it: I’m competitive to a fault, always have been and always will be,” he said. “I can really dive into things, and I have the ability to be very single-minded, and I can sit and really concentrate on things for quite a while.”
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