ATLANTA — The single moms and young college students sit in a circle, throwing out names, dates, anything that could lead them to the suspect in the unsolved lynching of four black sharecroppers killed decades ago.
On the wall hangs a long piece of paper with dates written on Post-it notes: stabbing, meeting, lynching. It's a timeline waiting for the details, a story to be told.
"Write down means, motive and opportunity, because you've got to figure out all three," says Sheryl McCollum, who oversees this group of aspiring sleuths. "Don't try to make this hard. Murder ain't ever complicated."
It's another lesson for the 100 or so students at tiny Bauder College who make up an unusual club that calls itself the Cold Case Investigative Research Institute. They gather in the school library to discuss leads and examine coroners' reports and witness statements in real-world whodunits, gaining experience that can help them land jobs in the criminal justice system and appreciation for the people involved in each case.
"You kind of get personally vested in it and you want to see it through to the end," said Tammy Williams, 31, who started taking classes at Bauder a year ago after reading a newspaper article about the club and its work on the eight-year-old probe into the killing of Washington intern Chandra Levy.
Williams, a single mother of two, wanted to go to law school after Bauder; now she's considering becoming a homicide detective.
The students do not get college credit for joining the institute, and they do not get paid. But they do get to meet with victims' families and work with professional detectives who have been on the cases for years and teach them how an investigation is built.
Bauder, which is part of the for-profit Kaplan Higher Education Corp. and is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, is a commuter campus with career-oriented degrees, such as fashion design, criminal justice, business administration and computer networking. The college offers everything from technical certificates to bachelor's degrees, which cost between $14,000 and $19,000 a year.
McCollum doesn't keep data on how many students go on to work as investigators, but Bauder has an 83 percent job placement rate for its four-year criminal justice program and an 86 percent rate for its two-year degree, spokeswoman Caitlin Tridle said.
La-Shaun Bates, who graduated from Bauder in January with a criminal justice degree, has started her own private investigation firm and became a bail bonding agent. Her first case with the institute was the 1965 disappearance of newlywed Mary Shotwell Little, an Atlanta woman whose death has never been solved.
"From then on, I found my calling," said Bates, 40, who continues to attend the group's meetings to keep her skills sharp.
The students use only public documents — court filings, historical accounts and other information — for their research. They don't have access to confidential investigative police documents, and they always get the blessings of the victims' families before starting.
Levy's mother, Susan, visited Bauder last year to talk to the students about her daughter, and credits the institute for helping keep the case alive. The sleuth club worked most of last year on the Levy case, and the students forwarded their findings to police in Washington in December.
During their Levy investigation, the students had a firsthand look at decomposition when McCollum's friend donated half a lamb for them to study. They placed the carcass in a wooded area similar to the place where Levy's body was found in a Washington park, checking on it frequently over 11 days and taking photographs and notes.
McCollum and the students won't say whom they named as suspects in the case. McCollum did say in February that the arrest of Ingmar Guandique, who was already in jail for two other attacks in the same park where Levy's body was found in 2002, made sense and supported some of her group's findings.
McCollum has warned students against revealing the outcome of their investigations, saying professional detectives would not.
"We promise that confidentiality," said McCollum, who is also a cold case analyst for the police department in Pine Lake, an Atlanta suburb.
McCollum, who's been teaching at Bauder for six years, dreamed up the Cold Case Institute in 2005 after reading a newspaper story on Little, the slain newlywed.
Besides the Levy case, students have worked on the killing of rapper Tupac Shakur, the disappearance of teenager Natalee Holloway in Aruba and a series of Atlanta child murders from 1979 to 1981. They identified suspects in all the cases and forwarded those conclusions to law enforcement and the victims' families, McCollum said.
Now the students are turning their attention to the lynchings. They will travel to Monroe, where Roger and Dorothy Malcom and George and Mae Murray Dorsey were pulled from a car, dragged to the Moore's Ford Bridge and shot to death in July of 1946. They'll talk to relatives and experts, read books, and try to break through more than 60 years of silence from the people involved.
"When one is closed, you have to move on the next family you can help, the next police department you can maybe give a tip to," Williams said. "It's a puzzle, and when you start getting pieces that fit together, it makes you want to find the next piece."
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