Cold Case in the Classroom: How three unsolved files ended up in the hands of Olivet students

Posted at 7:47 PM, Aug 31, 2016
and last updated 2016-08-31 21:04:55-04

CALHOUN COUNTY, Mich. – They’re cases that have gone unsolved – some for decades – and now they’re in the hands of 13 students at Olivet College.

It’s all part of a new class that allows a small group of criminal justice majors to take a crack at cold cases out of the Battle Creek area. In conjunction with Battle Creek Police, county prosecutors, and family members of victims, course administrators will provide students with access to real case files, evidence, crime scene photos and interviews – all the same materials professional investigators have.

“I thought it would always be great to have college students involved in that,” said Phil Reed, an Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at Olivet and the idea-man behind the curriculum.

“These cases are frustrating, that’s why they’re unsolved. But you have to be persistent and you have to think outside the box and start looking at these things and come together with a fresh perspective. Every day that’s what we’re going to do in this class.”

The class will be broken up into groups, each with a facilitating staff member to guide them. Along with Reed, Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice Mike Sherzer and Director of Criminal Justice Dr. Regina Armstrong, PhD will direct the curriculum, bringing a combined 60-plus years of law enforcement and corrections experience to the classroom.

But the focus will remain on the student’s efforts. It’s a fresh perspective to old cases – perhaps just what the files need.

“We have out mindset and as police officers we expect certain things,” said Sherzer, “and all of a sudden someone else comes in and says, ‘well, maybe it is something different.’ I think that’s what we’re looking for is a completely different mindset.”

While students won’t be able to physically touch and hold evidence, they will get to see objects and photos in police files pertaining to their cases. In some instances, they’’ even be able to go on scene and conduct investigations there as well. It’s something members of the Battle Creek Police Department feel is beneficial to the future of their profession.

“We’ve put a lot of trust in our future law enforcement,” said Detective Sergeant Troy Gilleylen, who heads the detective bureau at BCPD and is working with the class to provide files and evidence. “We’re very excited about something so unique and so new and so different. This could be a great opportunity and maybe perhaps something even that other jurisdictions will be able to open up and do.”

The group will be graded on a series of papers throughout the year in addition to journals kept on their findings and thoughts.

“You have to be able to adapt and go with the punches,” said Dr. Armstrong, “and so if we see we’re going in one direction and it says we’re going to do this on the syllabus, guess what? We’re going to do something else.”

Regardless of whether or not the cases remain unsolved at the end of the year, it’s still an unmatched experience, say administrators and officers.

“If something is solved,” saod Det. Sgt. Gilleylen, “that is only a major plus to what is already there.”