Prof heats up cold cases with student society

Mike Arntfield, professor in the Faculty of Information & Media Studies, is inviting FIMS students to participate in the investigative society to help examine cold cases.

“We now have an entire generation of students who have grown up learning to learn differently and also look at information much differently than previous generations,” says Arntfield, also a detective constable with the London Police Service. “When some of these cases were first investigated … what is going on now would have been the stuff of science fiction.

“A lot of these cases have unfortunately have remained boxed up and haven’t benefitted from opportunities of renewal offered by new media.”

Drawing on the model of the Vidocq Society, an exclusive group of forensic professionals and interested citizens in Philadelphia who gather monthly to investigate unsolved deaths, students in the course conducted their own investigations of serial killer cases from the United States. Their fresh eyes and research techniques proved effective – last year information collected by the students contributed to police reopening a cold case.

The idea builds on Arntfield’s course, The Serial Killer in the Media and Popular Culture, which he developed two years ago.

Reopening an unsolved mystery

In examining information about the death of Christine Rothschild, who was found fatally stabbed at the University of Wisconsin in 1968, Western students cracked a mystery about the Capital City Killer in Madison, Wis.

The students found original reports and contacted Rothschild’s former roommate using social media. They found she had been keeping detailed records about a man she suspected was her friend’s killer.

But one student took it a step further and called the alleged suspect and recorded the 90-minute conversation. A polygraph examiner and trained statement analyst analyzed the recording and transcript, and confirmed Arntfield’s professional opinion and suspicions about the suspect.

The information collected by the students was sent by Arntfield to his American detective colleagues in charge at the University of Wisconsin’s police department and “this person is now a person of interest,” he says.

“My students basically crystallized existing theories that the first of the murders, Christine Rothschild, was not a victim of the serial killer, but a one-off that sort-of got lumped in with the other victims,” Arntfield says.

A year prior, the students in the course came up with the identity of who they felt was the Grim Sleeper serial killer in Los Angeles. The information was shared with the L.A. police. It may have been coincidence, Arntfield says, but an arrest was made two months later and it was the same man the students suspected to be involved in the case.

Searching for clues

Just like the course, the investigative society will not be a simulation. Students will don the hats of true crime investigators and work towards solving cases where the trail has gone cold.

“It isn’t being done for marks; it is being done out of people’s sense of altruism and motivation to serve the community. To use their talents and motivation for such a truly utilitarian purpose, who knows what we can get?”

Making a call to a potential suspect was not part of the Capital City Killer assignment, Arntfield says, and participants in the investigative society will be given strict orders to avoid taking risks that will put themselves in danger.

“What happened with the Capital City Killer case is exceptional. They are going to be given strict directions that they are not to go out knocking on doors. It (the information) is going to be obtained remotely to begin with and they will report their findings to me and we will go from there.”

This is not to be regarded as private investigative work, he reiterates. Rather, students will obtain information and relay results to the appropriate police department.

Arntfield’s unique combination of officer and academic puts him in a position to help guide the students through the motions of crime solving. They will draw on his knowledge, but also tap into the experts and resources on campus to crack open the cases.

The key is not to circumvent the police like in the case of private eyes, but to work with them, he notes.

“The students offer enthusiasm and an unbiased eye,” he says. “Popular media and popular memory might have forgotten about these cases, but a large percentage of the time there is still someone living with the legacy of these crimes.”

The first two cases of the investigative society have yet to be determined, but will likely include the so-called Craigslist Ripper in New York and The Highway of Tears Murders in British Columbia. Arntfield is also putting out a call to the public and police departments to submit cases to be reviewed by the students and the investigative society will grow as new cases come in.