College students working cold cases

OLIVET – A dozen college students are starting Wednesday to put fresh eyes on cold-case homicides.

The law enforcement students at Olivet College will spend a year reviewing dormant murder investigations, looking for something the police missed.

"We have tried with seasoned investigators looking at them," said Battle Creek Police Chief Jim Blocker. "We will have young people look at them from a different perspective and maybe, maybe there is a glimpse of hope they will find something we potentially have missed."

The class, Cold Case Homicide Investigation, is for juniors and seniors in the Olivet College Criminal Justice Program, according to Phil Reed, associate professor in the program.

"It has been an idea of mine for 8 to 10 years, since I retired from the Battle Creek Police Department and came here to teach," Reed said.

"I have never seen it before and I just wanted to do it." Reed said. "I have some really smart students and it will be nice to take a fresh look."

It is similar to many projects using college students working with police and prosecutors to review and work on old homicide and missing persons cases. In Michigan the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan formed a Cold Case Homicide Committee in 2014 and began the Seeking Justice Project, pairing students with police.

One of those projects is in Cass County where students from Southwestern Michigan College/Ferris State University criminal justice program are working on cold cases with Prosecutor Victor Fitz.

Reed retired in 2003 as commander of the investigations bureau at the police department, and was involved when Calhoun County formed a Cold Case Homicide Team in 2001 involving officers and investigators from several departments and the prosecutor's office.

Reed said he worked with the police department, Calhoun County Prosecutor David Gilbert and Olivet College officials, seeking approval for the class.

The students will be divided into groups of four, who will be supervised by Reed; Regina Armstrong, associate professor and director of the Criminal Justice Program; and Mike Sherzer, assistant professor of criminal justice. Sherzer is a retired lieutenant from the Battle Creek Police Department who supervised cold cases for four years. He also serves on the Battle Creek City Commission.

Students will read and review case files, look at any available evidence, make notes and timelines, interview police investigators and perhaps talk with families of victims. If they have suggestions about new interviews or leads, those will be sent to police investigators. Students won't conduct interviews or take other active roles in the investigation.

"At the end hopefully we can update the case," Reed said. "If we can't solve it at least for the next few years they can look at what we did."

Reed said he was involved in cold case investigations at the police department and didn't want those cases to be forgotten.

"I was on the ground floor of forming the Cold Case Homicide Team and I was sorry to see it go because of lack of resources and funding," Reed said. "I am familiar with a lot of the cases and they have not gone anywhere. We are ready and we can help."

He said students applied and were interviewed last semester, submitted a resume and must undergo a police background check and be approved by the police department  before they could enroll in the class. All must take a confidentially oath and face severe penalties if they discuss any material outside the class.

"My reservations are too much talking by the students and not keeping tight controls of cases," Reed said. "The files won't leave my room and it is available only to read. And there are heavy consequences if the students do talk about the cases. We have hammered it home that these cases stay with us and if not they could fail the class and could be prosecuted."

Both Blocker and Gilbert had the same reservations but are satisfied with the restrictions placed on the students.

"There is a risk in anything we do like this," Blocker said. "There is a greater risk because we don't want case information to be leaked, but there is security protocol in place. If we can't trust these future leaders in law enforcement we are in worse shape than we thought."

Gilbert agreed that his only reservation was maintaining integrity of the cases but he said the students won't be doing anything other than reading reports and perhaps observing evidence – but only while supervised by a police officer.

The program is worth trying at a time when departments have little money and few people available to look at cold cases, he said.

"We don't have money for cold cases," Gilbert said.

He recently assigned a part-time investigator, Duane Knight, also a retired Battle Creek officer, to look as some of the more than 60 cold cases dating to the 1960s, but said "a part-time detective can't do it alone."

Knight will serve as a liaison between the prosecutor's office and the Olivet students along with Detective Sgt. Troy Gilleylen and Maj. Austin Simons of the Battle Creek Police Department.

"They are fresh eyes looking at old cases and it's part of a class," Gilbert said. "We will have people embedded in a case and they are going to know them backwards and forwards and they might just open some eyes. In my mind it is another resource. It is a free, but valuable, resource.

"It's fresh eyes on old files," Gilbert said.

Reed said three cases have been selected, but before work begins families will be notified to ensure they don't object. He said the yearlong class will help students learn to evaluate evidence and statements and improve their investigative and critical-thinking skills.

"Students will learn about real victims and real world experiences," Reed said. "They will see how different agencies interact and they will have the satisfaction of just trying to help. They will learn that these are honest to God victims with families who have been out there hurting for years."

Blocker sees the class as a possible way to make some progress on cases but also as a learning experience for the students.

"The students will be involved in something very real and legitimate and I think it brings the classroom alive. It is going to challenge all their assumptions about what they think about investigations and that they can't solve a homicide in 50 minutes, as Hollywood projects," Blocker said.

"There is no greater risk than letting these cases sit on the shelf until someone else is available," Blocker said. "We have the college right up the road and we can develop this relationship.

"Why not give it a shot?"


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