Michigan State Police fund WMU Cold Case Program students: A win-win for justice and education

Contact: Meghan Behymer

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KALAMAZOO, Mich.—The Michigan State Police (MSP) is boosting its partnership with Western Michigan University's Cold Case Program by launching a pilot initiative that will pay students to help detectives solve unsolved cases in Michigan, provide students with career opportunities and potentially give victims' family members some closure.

In September 2023, MSP committed to ongoing financial support to students who have been accepted into WMU's Cold Case Program with Michigan State Police. These students will officially become part of MSP as either state police cadets or student assistants. They will be paid for their work both in the Cold Case Program offices and up to an additional four hours a week at an MSP post or facility.   

Dr. Ashlyn Kuersten received an Award for Professional Excellence from the Michigan State Police for her dedication to the program and her students.

"Until now, we've relied on donations to fund this work," says Dr. Ashlyn Kuersten, director of the Cold Case Program. "Thanks to MSP's generous support, students gain real-world experiences in law enforcement while pursuing their degree. Hopefully the victims’ family members also get some answers."

This collaboration benefits both MSP and students. State police get access to highly trained potential recruits, while students gain valuable hands-on experience by learning from detectives how to solve real cases. 

"Being a part of the Cold Case Program has provided me with so many opportunities to better understand the criminal justice system and how it functions from an internal perspective," says Shelby Wilmot, a criminal justice and psychology student. "I have been able to determine my future career goals with the help of the Cold Case Program, and I built more professional connections than I would have thought possible."

The partnership between the Cold Case Program and MSP, which began in 2021, has already produced impressive results with students assisting detectives in solving cold cases that have puzzled investigators for decades.

Working closely with MSP investigators, the Cold Case Program has helped solve two cases in just one year. In April 2023, students helped detectives identify Robert Waters, a 53-year-old from South Carolina, as the primary suspect in the 1988 murder of 19-year-old Cathy Swartz from Three Rivers, Michigan. They also assisted detectives in the 1987 murder investigation of Roxanne Wood, which led to the arrest and sentencing of Patrick Gilham in February 2022.

These accomplishments have cemented the program's reputation for helping detectives in delivering real results. Students are currently assisting detectives in 14 other unsolved homicide and missing persons cases.

"The Cold Case Program has already shown that motivated, passionate students can achieve incredible results," says Detective First Lieutenant Chuck Christensen, who helped develop the program with Kuersten. "Our investment in this pilot program shows the tremendous potential of partnerships between educational institutions and law enforcement agencies."

Broncos acquire a diverse skill set, including file organization, collaboration with detectives, creating maps and timelines, formulating interview questions, conducting media research and compiling suspect lists. They also receive guidance from prosecutors, crime lab experts, medical examiners and victims' families. Collaboration with campus scholars, such as Brad Dennis from University Libraries and Dr. Mine Dogan from the Department of Geological and Environmental Sciences, who serve as program consultants, enhances their learning experience. Additionally, students in the pilot program can gain practical experience through lab work, ride-alongs with MSP troopers and learning the art of writing police reports, among other opportunities.

"I think our students benefit from this real-world experience,” says Kuersten. "Our students graduate from WMU with hundreds of hours of relevant experience, ready to enter the criminal justice field and contribute to the work of MSP."

The Cold Case Program with Michigan State Police accepts applications twice a year, in February and October. It's open to students with a minimum 3.0 GPA, at least sophomore standing and recommendation from at least one faculty member. Applications are not limited to any one major since this work is extremely multidisciplinary. For students who are not interested in a career with the state police, there are scholarships available. Admission into the Cold Case Program is highly selective, with only 15 student positions available each semester.

Find more information on the Cold Case Program with Michigan State Police online.

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