Western's Cold Case Program helps crack second case

Contact: Erin Flynn

Dr. Ashlyn Kuersten launched the Cold Case Program in 2021 with several criminal justice students.

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—For 35 years, the family of Cathy Swartz has been searching for answers in the young mother's murder. Students in Western Michigan University's Cold Case Program played an integral role in helping police solve the case.

The Three Rivers (Michigan) Police Department, in partnership with the Michigan State Police, used advanced DNA technology along with forensic genetic genealogy to identify Robert Waters as Swartz's accused killer. Officers arrested him on Saturday, April 29, in South Carolina.

"I'm extremely thankful to the Western Michigan University Cold Case Program and the impressive work that they accomplished in a short period of time. I am so proud of the students and Dr. Ashlyn Kuersten's dedication to the program, the case investigation and our continued three-year partnership. The work that they do truly makes a difference in our communities," says Detective First Lieutenant Chuck Christensen of the Michigan State Police Fifth District Headquarters, who helped launch Western's program alongside Kuersten.

Madi Price sits across from a TV reporter and her photojournalist.

Cold Case Program alumna Madi Price, who recently earned bachelor's degrees in criminal justice and psychology, interviewed with WWMT on Monday, May 1.

"I'm constantly impressed with the amazing students," adds Kuersten. "These students truly give these cases 100% of their effort and work weekends and holidays, always acting like true professionals toward victims' families and the detectives they work with."

"This experience working for the Cold Case Program has changed my life," says Rachel Moore, a criminal justice student from Niles, Michigan. "Before I was accepted into the program I wanted to go into social work. But after meeting MSP detectives, prosecutors and DNA/ballistic/drone and other experts from MSP and then traveling to crime scenes, it showed me that I want to work closely for the public good, particularly with law enforcement. I’m now applying to the Michigan State Police and the FBI."

Western students have been involved in the Swartz investigation for months. As part of their work in the Cold Case Program, they spent many hours digitizing and organizing approximately 10,000 documents related to the case. Those files were then incorporated into a searchable database that detectives could use to quickly and efficiently sift through information in the field.

"After digitizing, we came up with our own theories of what happened to assist detectives working on the case," says Moore.

"These students are our future of law enforcement and helped detectives in being able to search and find information in a plethora of paperwork," says Scott Boling, chief of the Three Rivers Police Department, which acted as the lead agency on this homicide investigation.

"This experience took what we learned in the classroom about criminal justice, law enforcement and the justice system and put it into a real-life scenario," says Liz Tackabury, who graduated the same weekend as the arrest with a bachelor's degree in criminal justice. She is program coordinator for the Cold Case Program. "Getting to work hands-on with real cases that put into practice what we have learned was very eye-opening to what sort of pathways are available in the (criminal justice) world."

This is the second cold case Western students have helped solve in just over a year; they played a part in the investigation into the 1987 murder of Roxanne Wood, which led to the arrest of Patrick Gilham in 2022. Students are currently working on 14 other cases in partnership with Michigan State Police, ranging from homicides to missing persons.

"Working alongside my students and these incredible detectives and other MSP experts has been the highlight of my entire career," says Kuersten. "Students are learning from the best investigators our state has, then taking this knowledge into their future careers in law enforcement. So the students are preparing for their futures while helping victims’ family members get closure. Broncos are literally making our world a better place while they learn.”

Kuersten has been contacted by schools and police agencies across the country who are interested in setting up similar programs, and she has already connected with a couple of other universities in Michigan.

"I hope every state in our nation will join Michigan in training public university students to help public servants at state police agencies to close out some of the thousands of cold cases currently on the books," says Kuersten. "Not only will these programs give much-needed answers to victims’ families, but they will also train the next generation of law enforcement."

For more WMU news, arts and events, visit WMU News online.