“Everything is a step forward”: a student organization investigates cold cases

The body of Jessica Freeman, a 15-year-old sex-trafficking victim, was found by the side of a road in nearby Bethel Park in 1992. The Freeman case, along with countless others, remains unsolved at this day.

A Pitt Club, Students conquering cold cases, investigates unsolved cases in the greater Pittsburgh area, such as the Freeman case. Founded in 2015 by then-student Nicole Coons, the club offers students the opportunity to gain hands-on experience by investigating authentic cases. The current 21-member group meets weekly and works to establish some sort of cold case resolution provided by local law enforcement.

The group has been investigating the Freeman case for three years now. Shannon Stall, president of the SCCC and a graduate in psychology, said the club worked directly with Freeman’s family and law enforcement officers associated with the case to gain an intimate understanding of his life and circumstances that led to his death.

Although Freeman being so young made the job particularly difficult, according to Stall, it motivates the club to devote so much time and energy to helping move the case forward.

“We’re going to continue to do everything we can to try to salvage that innocence, that she was still a child and didn’t deserve to die,” Stall said.

Stall said working with the families of victims is a tangible way for them to provide assistance to their loved ones’ unsolved cases. The club takes the time to speak directly with family members to try to better understand the lives of victims. This has led to a higher level of understanding and empathy for victims and provides information often unavailable in a file. According to Stall, this can go a long way in humanizing a victim and combating biases that might arise from the details of a case.

Sami Kuperberg, SCCC’s communications liaison and sociology and history student, said knowing the club is working can reassure victims’ families and help him and his colleagues devote time and investigative efforts.

“Many of the families of these victims feel [these cases] will never be resolved,” Kuperberg said. “Even the potential to help a victim’s family find the solution is an incredible experience and project to be part of.”

According to Stall, the club’s latest case is an investigation into another local death. Faye Jackson, a 24-year-old sex worker, was found dismembered near Turtle Creek in 1994. Stall said the club is currently working on the case to establish a realistic timeline for the case.

During this phase, members work in groups to break down the files and extract names, dates and major events, before compiling the information into a single format to allow digital manipulation. The club uses this data to create a detailed timeline of events, which it can then plot in Google Maps.

According to Stall, the card allows the club to manipulate driving times and pitch access, verify inconsistencies in suspicious interviews and more in ways that would otherwise be difficult without the digitization of information. Consolidating hundreds of pages of handwritten or typewriter-printed information into a digital format allows for a much deeper investigation, and it’s something the club’s law enforcement partners have specifically requested. and appreciated.

Samantha Wert, the club’s case manager and a junior psychology and law, criminal justice and society student, said working with real cases provides an unparalleled level of legitimacy to their work.

“Its authenticity makes it so much more real. You can really relate to the fact that this is a real person’s life,” Wert said. “It’s not just a documentary, it’s not just a story to tell someone. This has far wider effects than anyone could know.

Authenticity brings with it a level of difficulty that the group remains aware of. According to Stall, she does her best to present each new member with an express understanding that her goal is to advance business in any way possible. Stall said one of the main ways the club provides assistance is to work to address the mountain of untested evidence, which could be crucial in connecting the missing pieces in a case.

“Although we have DNA from 30 years ago, we would like to retest them, so funding would definitely be good for us,” Stall said.

Allegheny County has a designated crime lab to process evidence from its caseload. According to Stall, the backlog means cold cases are often not prioritized and can force any necessary treatment to be outsourced to private labs, which usually comes at a substantial price. While the county has ways to secure funding for this, the group feels responsible for facilitating the processing of as much viable evidence as possible.

Stall said it was extremely difficult to secure funding as a small club, especially with the high cost. The club are trying to generate the necessary money through various means to obtain these DNA tests, which could be a crucial step towards closing a deal.

The club’s efforts are not going unnoticed by their law enforcement partners. According to Stall, county detectives are incredibly responsive and welcome all of the work done by the SCCC. The club’s efforts help complement law enforcement and create a “symbiotic relationship” between the two.

According to Kuperberg, the group’s significant level of engagement with local law enforcement keeps her and the rest of the group engaged, even in the face of obstacles such as a lack of funding. Kuperberg said the access and support of detectives from local police departments builds confidence that motivates members to keep working.

“It was an amazing experience to sit in a room and share your theories and have a detective take notes,” Kuperberg said. “Having such a strong collaborative relationship with law enforcement pushes us as well. It’s really encouraging that your ideas are validated.

But according to Wert, this opportunity does not overshadow the reality that these cases are unsolved for a reason. Wert said that while working with law enforcement adds to the experience, it also serves as a reminder that the job at the club is a difficult and often thankless endeavour. She said gaining experience in the field is an important factor for her and other members.

“We’re here for the small steps, not just the big cracks in the deal,” Wert said. “Everything is a step forward.”

According to Stall, whatever the product, it’s the journey to progress that makes SCCC such a vital resource for those who may no longer have a voice. Stall knows that the work she and her colleagues do gives victims’ families a sense that someone is working to bring justice to their loved ones.

“At the end of the day, it’s all about the victims and the families of the victims,” Stall said. “I know we are having an impact.”

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