Cold Case Sleuths: An Interview with the CCIRI
Meet the mind behind the Cold Case Investigative Research Institute, a real-life detective club that tackles unsolved murders throughout history.
This post originally appeared on The Line Up.
No case is too cold for these budding detectives.
At the Cold Case Investigative Research Institute, students work side-by-side with professionals of the criminal justice community to advance research, training, and techniques in solving unsolved murders throughout history.
Founded by Sheryl McCollum in 2004, the CCIRI has since evolved into a nationwide network of over 600 forensic professionals and 2,000 student volunteers. Each year, the Institute selects a new cold case to research. Their investigations include the 1946 slaying of four Georgia sharecroppers, the 1996 assassination of Tupac Shakur, and the 1989 unsolved death of Kaitlyn Arquette, which was chronicled by Kaitlyn’s mother Lois Duncan in the moving true crime memoir, Who Killed My Daughter?
We spoke with Ms. McCollum about her fascinating fieldwork and the CCIRI’s progress on the Duncan case.
TLU: We came to know you and your work at the CCIRI through author Lois Duncan, whose true crime memoir, Who Killed My Daughter? details the 1989 unsolved murder of her own daughter, Kaitlyn Arquette. The CCIRI is currently investigating this cold case. How did you first learn of it?
SM: If you don’t believe in coincidences this story is for you. Lois Duncan wrote me a letter asking for help with Kate’s case in 2008. It was lost at the Institute – it had been placed on the top of a very tall cabinet. During a recent move we found the letter, and I called her last October. I apologized for the years it took to call. She was so kind and gracious stating she understood how busy I must be with the CCIRI. I told Lois President Obama could call back and meet with her and her husband in Florida by the time I returned her message!
TLU: Your previous investigations include the Boston Strangler, Tupac Shakur, and the unsolved lynching of four sharecroppers in Georgia. What guides you and your students in the selection process?
SM: In our early years, the CCIRI selected cases based on the area of study for the students in the program. Forensic anthropologist students, for example, might study cases with distinct blood spatters or underwater crime scenes where a body has decomposed. After a decade of selecting cases in this manner, families and law enforcement began contacting us to ask for our assistance in open investigations.
What guides us is our desire to help; what keeps us working is our ability to care. We can’t solve them all, of course, but we can care about them all and try.
TLU: How long does a CCIRI investigation typically last?
SM: Generally, we dedicate a year to each case – although if we need more time we will take it. We’ve stayed on some cases for 10 years.
TLU: What are some of the tactics your students use during an investigation? Is it fieldwork, in-person interviews, online research?
SM: The students use tactics pulled straight from law enforcement – crime case timelines, 3-D renderings, sonar readings, witness statement and ballistics analysis, even crime scene re-enactments. The experts who teach at the CCIRI are nationally recognized in their fields and work directly with our students on every case.
TLU: What about your background in criminal justice led to your creation of the CCIRI?
SM: I launched the CCIRI in 2004, as a way to combine my college teaching experience with my investigative work at the local police department. The sheriff at the time was Sheriff Stewart, and he was instrumental in providing hands-on training with actual cold cases. Soon after our launch, we expanded the Institute to include experts from Auburn University-Montgomery and Faulkner University. Today, we have over 25 colleges and universities, over 2, 000 students and over 600 experts – all volunteering their time and energy to crack these cold cases.
TLU: In 2008, CCIRI investigated the then-unsolved murder of Chandra Levy from 2001. The case was eventually closed in 2010 with the conviction of Ingmar Guandique. Can you share your experiences with this case? Did CCIRI work with Levy family members during the investigation?
SM: Our greatest experience at the Institute has been working with families. The members of the Levy family were outstanding to us. Susan actually came to Atlanta to meet with our students and experts. And I have to tell you: hearing a case explained to you by a surviving family member changes the way you work.
TLU: How so?
SM: You learn about the victim – their personal likes and dislikes. The victim becomes real, and the work becomes urgent. It turns into a mission for you.
TLU: I imagine it’s rare working alongside a surviving relative who also happens to have written a book about the murder. How does Lois Duncan’s book fit into your search?
SM: Working a cold case is a personal quest – people approach the process differently. I like to start with crime scene pictures. Others start with police reports or witness statements. In the case of Kaitlyn Arquette, many CCIRI students begin with Lois’ book. All of us eventually read it – it’s a cornerstone to our investigation.
TLU: Kaitlyn’s death occurred over 25 years ago. How do your students navigate this gap in time?
SM: A gap in time can benefit a cold case. People who may be reluctant to step forward after a crime has been committed are often more willing to speak up 25 years later. Relationships change – people get divorced, go to jail, or get sick – which can bring forth new information. Another benefit you can count on? Technology; it only gets better. Often, cases can be solved more quickly because time passes!
TLU: I know you’re in the middle of an investigation and so many questions are off limits. That said, are there any updates to the Arquette case you’re able to share?
SM: I can’t reveal any investigation specifics. What I can tell you is that the Arquette case has been reviewed by numerous experts – crime scene investigators, profiling specialists, gang experts and immigration officials, just to name a few. I will be traveling to the scene of the crime in Albuquerque where I will meet with investigators who possess first-hand knowledge of the investigation. Once we complete our investigation at the CCIRI, an action plan will be sent to the department handling Arquette’s case.
To learn more about Sheryl McCollum and the Cold Case Investigative Research Institute, visit the CCIRI homepage. To learn more about the unsolved murder of Kaitlyn Arquette, download Lois Duncan’s ebook at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and iTunes
Photos: Courtesy of CCIRI and Lois Duncan