Over the last few decades, bodies have been found in Indiana cornfields, along the sides of lonely country roads, and in shallow, unmarked graves. The FBI estimates that 37 percent of homicides go unsolved and become cold cases—files tucked away in police departments. Sometimes even the victim’s identity remains unknown more than 20 years later.

To shake old memories loose and bring such cases to the public’s attention, Ball State's Building Better Communities program partnered with Crime Stoppers of Central Indiana to establish the Cold Case Homicides immersive learning project. In the fall of 2013, criminal justice and telecommunication majors created 16 public service announcements. They dug through the long-forgotten, dust-covered files, including the case of a slain 11-year-old girl abducted in 1975—the oldest homicide the students investigated.

The student team reviewed files in 15 law enforcement agencies to develop modern communication tools to alert the public. Public service announcements appear on police websites and the Crime Tips website and were distributed through social media. 

“The idea behind this project was to increase the visibility of these unsolved cases that were no longer in the public eye, in hopes that these videos would generate tips and lead to the arrest of a suspect,” says Ball State criminal justice major David Blankenship, ’14, from LaPorte, Indiana.

Poring over Files, Interviewing Detectives

Blankenship was involved in every aspect of the project, from investigating one of the cases to assisting other classmates in their investigations and creation of videos. 

“Each student was assigned a case, allowing us to examine the details found in the old files, including old black and white photos of crime scenes and handwritten notes by police,” Blankenship says. “We were able to meet with family and friends of the deceased and professionals who ranged from detectives, police chiefs and sheriffs, coroners, mayors, and others who may have worked on the case in some fashion. In the end, every student created a public service announcement and a secondary case narrative for the department.”

The students were led by Bryan Byers, a Ball State criminal justice professor. 

“I wanted my students to understand the pain and suffering families go through when their loved ones die without closure,” Byers says. “This gave our students the satisfaction of doing something positive in the name of those victims who are often forgotten.

“Given the preparatory work that the student team did, law enforcement agencies were excited, enthusiastic, and supportive of the project. The families were very thankful and highly cooperative.”

National Recognition

For Blankenship and his fellow students, working on this immersive learning project gave them insight into the challenges investigators face and the grief families endure.

“This was an incredible opportunity for students to receive the best and most innovative educational experience ever produced,” Blankenship says. “Ball State understands what an exceptional education is, and the criminal justice department provided one of the best life experiences I have ever had.”

It’s this experience that led Ball State University and Crime Stoppers of Central Indiana to receive the 2014 Best Community Initiative award for the Unsolved Death Project at the Crime Stoppers USA Conference in Austin, Texas.

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