IT WAS SUPPOSED to be the happiest time of the year when, in December 1958, Portland residents Ken and Barbara Martin and their three daughters loaded up their Ford station wagon and headed to the Columbia River Gorge to find the perfect Christmas tree. Instead, the outing ended in tragedy. The Martins never returned to their Northeast Portland home, and five months later the bodies of Virginia, twelve, and Sue, ten, washed up on the shores of the Columbia River.

Multnomah County detectives have always suspected foul play, especially since evidence suggested the Martins’ station wagon was pushed into the Columbia near The Dalles. But exactly what happened to the family has remained a mystery for fifty years.

Now, a group of volunteer sleuths is hoping to unravel the Martin case, one of Portland’s most baffling. In October, the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office swore in eight retired law enforcement officers as members of the newly formed Cold Case squad. The detectives will delve into some of the county’s thirty-five cases that have gone unsolved for at least two years.

Don’t get caught up in visions of the CBS drama series Cold Case, though: these investigators will leave the gun-slinging, door-busting, bad-guy-chasing business to the full-time detectives. “This is going to be a mental game,” says Gary Muncy, a squad member who retired from the sheriff’s office in 2003 after thirty-two years.

The group’s main job will be to serve as a fresh set of eyes. Team members will review reports and look for evidence, such as cigarette butts or sweat-stained clothing, that can be tested for DNA, a technique that’s been commonly used here only since 1990.

In Multnomah County, the help is sorely needed. In 2007, the sheriff’s office’s six active detectives reviewed nearly 1,200 cases, ranging from homicide to fraudulent credit-card use. And the office isn’t likely to get any more paid staff. The same day the Cold Case squad was sworn in, county chairman Ted Wheeler announced that the county, including its public safety departments, faced a $35 million budget shortfall.

The formation of the team isn’t without precedent. In 2002, the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, in southwestern Oregon, formed one of the first volunteer cold-case units in the country. The so-called “Cold Case Cowboys” made headlines when they promptly cracked a murder mystery that had gone unsolved for twenty-eight years. And in 2004, the Portland Police Bureau formed a team to blow the dust off three hundred unsolved cases. (The group has solved fourteen of them so far.)

“Even when the case has zero probability of being solved,” says Muncy, “when there are no witnesses and the person is unidentified—maybe doused in gasoline and tossed in a ditch—it’s about finding some form of justice for these people. We all still have that sense of duty.”