Students Probe Cold Cases in Criminal Investigations Course
Students in Northwest Florida State College's Criminal Investigations (CJE 2600) course this spring delved into three local cold cases as part of a semester-long class project.
The students formed three groups and each one investigated an actual cold case, poring through case files, reviewing documents, talking to investigators, and compiling information. At the end of the course, each group gave a presentation on what they had learned.
NWF State College Criminal Justice Training Center Coordinator Jeff McGill, who teaches the course and is a former Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office investigator himself, came up with the idea for the cold case project. McGill said he contacted the Okaloosa and Walton sheriff's offices to ask if they wanted to partner in the effort, and "they got on board."
The agencies sent over about eight cases from which the students could choose, and each group selected one. The three cases the students examined included one missing person case and two homicides:
- Andrea Durham, a 13-year-old girl who was last seen leaving her family's apartment in Fort Walton Beach on Feb. 1, 1990.
- Merle Lewis, whose body was found at his mobile home in Mary Esther in October 1973; he had been shot once in the chest.
- Leroy Warren, who was found stabbed to death at his home in DeFuniak Springs in September 1995.
According to McGill, the cold case project has several benefits.
"It's a good opportunity for the college and the law enforcement agencies to partner," he said. "You never know where you're going to find leads. It's an opportunity to stumble across something we haven't already found."
Even if no new information is turned up, it still sends a message that the cases are alive. "It brings to light that these cold cases are still going on," McGill said. "People are still interested. We haven't given up."
In addition, it's a valuable learning experience for the students, enabling them to "see the practical side of what they learn in the book and the kind of work and effort that goes into an investigation," McGill said.
Angela Moore (shown in photo) led the group looking into the Andrea Durham disappearance. Despite a thick case file, heavy media attention, and numerous leads and tips that continue to come in 25 years later, investigators still don't know what happened to Durham.
"There's nothing," Moore said. "She vanished out of thin air."
Moore, who will graduate May 9 with an Associate in Science in Paralegal Studies, said that looking into the case makes her appreciate the technology available today that wasn't around at tbe time Durham disappeared.
"I think it's a great idea to get students to try to help," Moore said. "We learned a lot more than we thought we would. We learned about criminal investigations by actually doing it.
"We put our all in it," she added. "We were passionate about the case."
In contrast to the wide publicity the Andrea Durham case has received, the Leroy Warren case has endured in relative obscurity.
"Nobody even knows who Leroy Warren was," said Sydney Bassett, who led the group looking into Warren's death.
Bassett said her group focused on the investigative techniques used in the case. Being able to examine the case file and question why things were or weren't there gave her a chance to apply her knowledge from the textbook and "kind of bend it." What she realized is that the textbook can take an investigator only so far.
"You can have that foundation, but you have to have a little imagination," she said.
Bassett, who previously completed the college's law enforcement academy program and will graduate May 9 with an Associate in Science in Criminal Justice Technology, hopes to become a law enforcement investigator. The cold case project, she said, gave her an opportunity to "take the information and work it. I've never had a class where I've been able to do that."
For more information about criminal justice courses at NWF State College, contact Jeff McGill at 850-729-6029 or firstname.lastname@example.org.