Criminal justice students at Western Michigan University recently helped authorities find a break in a cold case from 1987. The students helped Michigan police reexamine the murder of Roxanne Wood, who was found dead in her home after a night out bowling with her friends in the late 80s.
Wood’s case confounded investigators at the time due to the confusing physical evidence at the scene and the lack of a motive for any of the likely suspects. Wood was married and had spent the night out with her husband and their friends. Investigators scoured the crime scene for clues about who might have attacked her, but the case went cold for 35 years.
A team of criminal justice students at WMU decided to tackle the case as part of their new Cold Case program. The students and their professor used modern technology and genetic genealogy to identify Wood’s attacker. Using physical evidence left at the scene, the University team identified 67-year-old Patrick Wayne Gilham as Wood’s attacker.
Investigators initially suspected Gilham in 1987 due to physical evidence found at the scene. However, they never had enough solid evidence to formally charge him with a crime. In February, authorities arrested him after matching DNA found on one of his discarded cigarette butts to DNA pulled from the Wood crime scene.
The suspect pleaded no contest to murder charges in mid-March and will face at least 23 years in prison. He will be 90 years old if he lives long enough to see release in 2045.
Wood’s case was the first undertaken by the WMU team, led by Dr. Ashlyn Kuersten. Michigan authorities say they were astonished by how successful the team’s efforts were. “I would call it highly successful in that the first case that we worked together, we were able to, as a group, make an arrest on a case that had been cold for 35 years,” says Detective Chuck Christensen of the Michigan State Police. Christensen began investigating the Wood case in 2001.
“This is a great experience for anyone who wants to go into law enforcement,” Dr. Kuersten explains to reporters. “It’s important that students have real-world experience.”
The two criminal justice students, Ashley Chlebek and Carl Huber, each put in over 1,000 hours scouring old case files and digitizing evidence. Thanks to the team’s tireless efforts and their close cooperation with the authorities, they managed to finally bring justice and closure to Roxanne Wood’s family.