DETROIT – These Canadian college students turn cold cases into open cases.
Their work has even led to arrests. This year's class project is one that hits close to home for Metro Detroiters: The Oakland County Child Killer case.
In 1976 and 1977, four Oakland County children were kidnapped, help captive for days and then killed and place along public streets in Metro Detroit. The children ranged between ages 10 and 12. They were meticulously bathed and their clothes were cleaned prior to being found.
Investigating the Child Killer case has cost millions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of man hours. Professional investigators have identified a half dozen serious suspects over the years. However, 35 years later, no one has been charged with the murders.
"The objective is really to use new media research techniques, to look into old files on cold cases," said Renee Willmon, of the University of Western Ontario's Cold Case Society.
Now, there are fresh eyes digging into the 35-year-old mystery.
"And hopefully provide some outside consultation and analysis to aid the investigation wherever possible," Willmon said.
The students are trying to do what investigative units have failed to do up to this point: Solve the Oakland County Child Killer case.
"There are 15 of us from different programs on campus who have an interest in investigation and forensic kind of work who are working on this case," said Willmon.
Student from Western Ontario's Cold Case Society have chosen Michigan's biggest murder mystery as a class project. Past projects at the university have turned up new information on cold cases.
"The class has had some positive outcomes in the past," Willmon said.
Their work has not only led to arrests but also a conviction in one murder case.
"The person that they hypothesized was the perpetrator was in fact later convicted by that investigating agency," Willmon said.
Why choose the Oakland County Child Killer case? In part because those involved in the case are willing to cooperate.
They have worked with victim Timothy King's family. Timothy was the killer's last known victim.
"We were fortunate to come down here and meet with the King family, meet with some other people and stakeholders involved in the case to try to get as much information as possible. To just really research and dissect it from a new perspective," Willmon said.
The students also have interviewed Oakland county Executive L. Brooks Patterson. He was the county prosecutor at the time of the murders. They've talked with several investigators on the case and media investigators who have chased the story for decades. However, there is another reason they like their chances with this case. Thousands of once-private police reports and investigators' notes are now public.
"There are records available for us to look at and some data for us to work with and in this case there was a fair bit of information existing out there," Willmon said.
The group has expertise in multiple areas.
"We're fortunate to have in our group some people with different expertise. We have students in criminology, psychology, library sciences. I'm an anthropology student," Willmon said.
They will use new methods unavailable to law enforcement who first worked the case.
"Patterns in the text, names that pop up, associations that may not be readily apparent looking at the photographs and considering any physical evidence that may have been uncovered in light of new techniques and technologies that are available," she said.
Unlike a court of law, the class project does not require proof beyond a reasonable doubt. the students say they have no preconceived speculation on who did these horrific crimes. They will follow the evidence to come up with a conclusion.
"As a team, we're going to try to put together a report. Hopefully we'll be able to, based on the information we've gotten, have a hypothesis of potential perpetrators," Willmon said. "And provide that to the law enforcement involved and to the stakeholders that we've been meeting with so that they have some kind of additional evidence that has been generated from pre-existing data."
The class will share the results of the project with local police and prosecutors.
Local 4 will be sure to report the class's results at the end of the semester.