IACP 2022 preview: How university students are assisting a police agency to solve cold cases
The “scooby-doo” team receive course credit for helping detectives track down information and locate new leads
By Ashley Silver
Through an unlikely, but fruitful alliance, the Michigan State Police Department (MSP) and the School of Criminal Justice at Michigan State University forged a collaboration two years ago dedicated to solving the most arduous, yet compelling cold cases in the state of Michigan.
At IACP 2022, MSP Sergeant Larry Rothman and MSU Asst. Director of Online Programs Allison Rojek will shed light on how the partnership is helping to break some of the most mind-boggling cold cases statewide.
How the partnership began
In October 1981, two Michigan investigators, Mike Slagle and Bob Dietrich struggled to find clues to solve the mysterious disappearance and murder of 29-year-old Mary Alice Ellicott. Ellicott was reported missing by a friend after leaving The Polar Bear Bar in Saline. Days later, investigators located Ellicott’s body in a grassy field about a mile away from where she was last seen, but since there were no leads or forthcoming witnesses to the crime, the case would go cold until members of the new MSU/MSPD team breathed new life into the case through an innovative approach.
In March 2020, as Michigan State Police detective Sergeant Larry Rothman began searching through boxes of cold case files, he made the innovative decision to partner with the School of Criminal Justice at Michigan State University to develop a new Cold Case Unit. In the beginning, two faculty members, Dr. Karen Holt and Allison Rojek, and several graduate students eagerly volunteered for the team.
For the Ellicott case, the newly formed team combed through 1700 pages of case files, digitized and unveiled numerous pieces of evidence, developed re-investigative strategies and conducted additional interviews to eliminate one suspect, while getting closer to ruling out a second suspect.
The “Scooby-Doo” team
The “scooby-doo” team, as many fondly call the cohort of Michigan State students, receive course credit for helping detectives track down missing documents, interviews and case files to digitize their findings, making a substantial impact on locating new leads and putting the most cunning criminals behinds bars.
The second case reviewed by the group was solved after decades of questions and mystery. The 1987 murder of Roxanne Wood in Niles, Michigan haunted the family of the victim for years before the MSPD and the MSU partnership helped bring her killer, Patrick Gilham, to justice. After being bombarded with new DNA evidence surrounding Wood’s murder, Gilham pleaded no contest and is currently serving a minimum of 23 years in prison.
The Michigan State students have a detailed process for bridging the gap between outdated processing methods and new technologies to digitally organize and manage evidentiary information.
The group begins by scanning case information and organizing key details into searchable PDF files. They then diligently review every piece of the case files, oftentimes stumbling upon a comment from a former detective working the case that they can now provide to the current detectives revisiting that particular cold case. By having the students review and digitize names, contact information and other identifiable case elements, hours of police manpower can be redirected elsewhere for detectives to investigate new leads.
Mutually beneficial outcomes for all parties
The wins from the program are mutually beneficial for the MSU students, who get real-world experience diving into unsolved cases, and for the families of the victims, who can potentially receive emotional closure knowing they have answers to the mysteries that have plagued them for so long.
The partnership has also led to the development of a Cold Case Library, which contains all the cold cases in MSP’s 1st District.
Learn more about this partnership at the IACP session or visit https://wmich.edu/coldcase.