KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WOOD) — Western Michigan University and Michigan State Police are launching a pilot initiative that would help solve more cold cases, while giving students more than just an education.
Already, two decades-old murders have been solved.
The announcement to further bolster the partnership between MSP and WMU’s cold case program is a full-circle moment in more than one way for Detective Sgt. John Moore.
“Cold cases aren’t something that we get to as often as we would like,” he said.
That included the 1987 murder of Roxanne Wood. Moore said he and his fellow detectives assigned to the case always wanted to solve it.
“It was boxes and boxes of files and binders,” he added. “The Western Michigan (University) cold case program was able to condense that into a PDF searchable format. In the end, we were able to test DNA and find out that it was not the person that everybody thought it was.”
Patrick Gilham was identified as the suspect and later sentenced for the murder, more than 35 years after it happened.
“I was just astonished that they were able to find out who had killed (Wood). We attended the sentencing — we got to see all of that,” said Ashlyn Kuersten, Ph.D., who directs the program. “It was just a priceless experience for the students and for the victims and family members too. We’ve just flown from there.”
Following Gilham’s sentencing, their focus shifted to the 1988 murder of Cathy Swartz. Moore was also on the case, but it wasn’t John Moore.
His daughter Rachel Moore, a senior studying criminal justice at Western, worked on the case by organizing and digitizing case files for detectives.
“Honestly, my dad was my biggest role model in that since he is a detective for Michigan State Police,” she said. “It really drove my passion into the field.”
Eventually, detectives identified Robert Waters as the suspect, solving a total of two cases in one year’s time.
“For us to be able to help Michigan State Police, more things are coming together,” Rachel Moore said. “I think since it’s been so long since this case happened, the drive and effort that we wanted to solve this case really pushed us and pushed the detectives’ work in it.”
When the cold case program first started, only three students were in it per semester. According to Kuersten, the program received an average of 800 applications.
Now, as an extension of the partnership, 15 students with the program each semester are officially part of MSP as student assistants or police cadets, which are paid, part-time positions.
Rachel Moore is among the first group, which started this fall.
“This is really what we’ve been striving for,” Rachel Moore said. “It feels so good, finally, to get our feet in the door, and know that even after college — when we can’t unfortunately do this program anymore — that we can still go in the same direction that we’re in right now and hopefully become troopers and, one day, detectives.”
MSP Detective First Lt. Chuck Christensen told News 8 that for a typical cold case, it would take about seven months for four assigned detectives to organize documents before going out interviewing witnesses and people of interest.
“That same case, under this program, can be organized in the fashion that we need it to be and put the detectives in a position to be going out and hitting the streets within two weeks,” Christensen said. “This is an absolute force multiplier within the cold case area because of the additional resources that are being shared between our department and the students.”
“This program offers so much assistance to the everyday busy life of the detective and the Michigan State Police,” John Moore added. “Their work has just been amazing.”