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Sheryl McCollum is the founder of the Cold Case Investigative Research Institute in Atlanta, GA. She’s not just the founder, she’s also a crime analyst.
What really struck me about Sheryl is how much she cares about the work. She wants to solve these cases. She wants to help people. She wants to give families the peace they deserve. She also has a bit of a dry sense of humor, which must help given what she does.
Brightest Young Things: What is the official definition of a cold case? I think nowadays people who are not in your line of work casually throw that term around without really understanding it.
Sheryl McCollum: The short answer is it depends on which department you ask because everyone has their own definition. Generally it’s a case that is at least 3 years old and they have exhausted every lead, all the evidence that can be tested has been tested. They literally have nowhere they can go.
BYT: Sheryl, I have a pretty bad memory and I have to set a calendar reminder for everything I do. Do people have to set cold case calendar reminders? I guess what I’m trying to say is you file something, it’s a cold case and then you set it and forget it. How or why do people come back to a cold case? Why would a case be reopened?
SM: Sometimes what will happen is when a detective retires they might ask if they can keep working on the case. Another thing that happens is the family will call and remind the detectives by asking what’s going on with the case. That will rejuvenate it. When a department has a cold case squad they will have them go through the cases and pick out the ones they think they can work on. Sometimes new evidence will present itself, a body might be recovered. Sometimes someone will come forward because they are no longer afraid to tell us what they know.
BYT: What drew you to cold cases?
SM: I’ve been interested in crime and criminal justice since I was a little kid. For me cold cases kind of represented a way to use all of your skills at the same time and maybe even bring in some people that are a whole lot smarter than you to see if you can maybe do something with a case where the family hasn’t gotten any level of justice. To me it was really important work.
BYT: It’s interesting when you say “bring in people who are smarter than you,” because it takes a certain kind of person to admit that maybe they do need a little bit of help and I don’t want to say that I bet more women than men are willing to admit they need help but Sheryl…more women than men are willing to admit they might need a little help. Controversial opinion: only women should be cold case investigators.
SM: I need outside people to make a case the best investigation it can be. There is no ego in that.
BYT: What does the institute do?
SM: We take on unsolved homicides, kidnappings and missing persons cases that are cold and again our definition is 3 years or more with no viable leads. I have about 600 experts across the United States and 28 colleges that all have a different area of discipline. So what we can do is literally put a thousand people on a case to look at it a different way with a level of expertise that is nationally recognized. Our experts are literally the best in their fields. Nobody is paid. It’s all volunteer-based. You do it because it’s the right thing to do. To their credit I have never reached out to somebody, even someone I didn’t know; I’ve never had someone tell me no.
BYT: What kind of monster would say no?
SM: Well you know a lot of people…that’s how they make their living but to their credit they’re always like “heck yeah let’s see what you got.”
BYT: In terms of the technology available for forensics, what is the next big thing? If memory serves the first time DNA evidence was brought into a trial was the OJ Simpson case. What’s the next DNA testing for cold cases?
SM: I think the M-Vac is the next big thing. It’s a little machine that does what a swab could never do. If you think about a rug cleaner, like a steam cleaner for your carpet…it shoots the solution out and sucks it right back up that you then put in a little petri dish. It can get DNA off a rock, clothing, motorcycle handlebars, anything. It’s incredible. We used to use just a swab and when you rub it back and forth you’re gonna miss something. This doesn’t miss anything and it is so sensitive. They’ve been able to get DNA off clothes of a 40 year-old case. The M-Vac is closing cold cases all over the country.
BYT: Is this something that is wildly expensive that we can’t make available to everybody?
SM: Not at all. It costs $30,000.
BYT: Why I have that in the cushions of my couch!
SM: Every police department should have one, every crime lab should have one.
BYT: And do they?
SM: No ma’am.
BYT: Why don’t they.
SM: Well it’s brand new and here’s where some of the breakdown comes into play. Police officers are not scientists so they’re not gonna read scientific magazines. They don’t keep up with the latest things in DNA. That’s not their job. A lot of times they don’t know about these things and they’re behind trying to learn about it. I just met with a homicide sergeant on a case where I believe he could get the suspect’s DNA off the victim’s clothing using the M-Vac. He had never heard of this. Again that’s not his fault but there has got to be better communication between inventors, the scientific community and law enforcement.
BYT: And that’s also what you do at your institute.
SM: Absolutely it is. We promote it and talk about it. That’s what we’re supposed to be doing. The worlds need to be merged.
BYT: I think it’s incredibly frustrating that there’s not a better system. I’m starting to feel like police departments are no better than the DMV.
SM: Well they’re just human beings. Let’s say I invented some kind of car alarm. I may think to call car dealerships but it may never dawn on me to also call the police. If they knew what scientists were on the cusp of inventing it would be different. What should happen is every chief of police should be made aware of this. A lot of times they don’t know how to reach out. That’s just how it is. It’s a learning curve for everybody.
BYT: Is there a case that was particularly challenging that you kind of literally cheered about when it was solved.
SM: I think the Boston Strangler is right up there. We’re the ones who suggested exhume Albert DeSalvo and cross check the DNA that was found on Mary Sullivan and you would be able to see that he was the Boston Strangler. We cheered when they actually went forward and did that.
BYT: I did not expect you to say that. I thought for sure you’d give me some random case that I had never heard of. Okay the other side of that coin is, is there a cold case that hasn’t been solved that haunts you.
SM: Chanda Turner out of Oklahoma is one. She was murdered. It was originally ruled a suicide. Nobody that would walk into this crime scene would ever think suicide if they truly looked at this case. She was shot and her significant other didn’t call 911 for an hour. The law enforcement shows up. Her boyfriend said he was sound asleep and she must have gone outside and shot herself. He moved the weapon. There was a bottle of Clorox next to the master bed. There’s blood on the master bed. The sheets are off the bed and in the washing machine. You can see it in the crime scene photographs. She had bruising all over her like she had been in a fight. There was blood on the walls and in the bathroom. Every woman who is going to commit suicide says to herself “Oh I just have to do one more load of laundry.” The whole thing was so asinine and her parents had to fight to get the death certificate changed to undetermined. They had to fight to get the laws changed in Oklahoma to say hey outside people can come and help us because our local people aren’t doing anything.
BYT: Why does that happen. Is it just laziness?
SM: I don’t ever think that. I think sometimes you’ve got people that show up that don’t realize what they’re seeing and they believe what they’re being told because only one person is there to tell the story. If you find one friend that says “Yeah she was upset last week,” they’ll just run with it. You have to interview a cross section of people.
BYT: Is this also why cases go cold?
SM: Yes. Cases go cold because resources, time, manpower…if you’ve got a small department and they all have a heavy caseload it’s difficult to stay on top of every one of them. It’s impossible. If you don’t solve it in the first 48 hours the odds of you doing so changes dramatically. After the first year you can almost forget it.
BYT: What can the average citizen do?
SM: Listen to me, and I want everyone to hear me, private citizens solve cases all the time. It was a private citizen that found the DC Sniper car. It was a private citizen that cracked the Zodiac Killer code the first time. Private people can do it all the time. The Amber Alert system works because we put everybody on it. You should put those cold cases out and say you are looking for anybody who has information about that case because here’s the reality…whoever committed that crime has told somebody. They’ve either bragged about in jail, told a friend…somebody. That person can come forward. It takes everybody.