Student investigators look at clues to help unsolved cases in Michigan


It could be someone you know.

Thousands of families in Michigan are waiting right now for answers about unsolved crimes. Some of those cases have gone cold for decades. Michigan has more unsolved cases than just about every other state.

It's also considered one of the most violent states in the Midwest.

To help solve some of these crimes, prosecutors created a special cold case committee and recruited some extra help. Like an old game of Clue, piece by piece, eight students are looking into five cold cases -- examining evidence and looking for clues.

The person helping narrow in on the who, where and how is Cass County Prosecutor Victor Fitz.

"When you have kids who are creative and maybe haven't gotten into established thought processes when it comes to these cases, they can sometimes pick out or see something that maybe even an experienced veteran might miss," said Fitz.

That's why he created "Seeking Justice." It puts criminal justice students at Southwestern Michigan College and Ferris State University alongside cold case investigators -- something that's never been done before.

"This is not a book report. This is real life stuff. And, they understand that the information they receive is not to be disseminated to their family members, to fellow students," said Fitz. "The only time that they talk about it is when they're working with investigators and working as a team."

Students have been through lots of interviews, passed background checks and swore in under oath.

"It's very empowering, especially to know that there's a family out there that doesn't know what happened to their loved one and that we're playing an instrumental role in helping that come to a conclusion hopefully," said Julie Sisk, a student at Ferris State.

Sadly, these are just five out of thousands of murder cases that are still unsolved. Since 1980, there are more than 11,000 in Michigan alone.

Michigan's violent crime rate is almost 30 percent higher than any other state in the Midwest, and police departments in the state are shrinking -- which leads to the problem of fewer resources to investigate cases.

"It's important to remember that every one of those 11,000 cases is a tragedy for the individual that died and also for the family that survives," said Fitz.

That's what drives students like Julie Sisk, a full-time reserve police officer in Niles for the past eight years.

"Doing computer forensics, you often see things you don't want to see or you have to see," she said. "It's kind of hard keeping your emotions out but knowing that you're helping a family or helping someone. It's kind of the driving force behind everything."

Future Detective Tyler Fye is already honing those skills by taking part in a student CSI team that won a state title and finished eighth in a national competition.

"Being able to solve crimes, bring justice to people's families. That's just something I want to be a part of," he said. "I get to work with a lot of detectives and a lot of prosecutors and get the opportunity to work with the best."

And it requires a lot of hard work.

"Making sure you check every single possible lead you can have, talk to everybody in the neighborhood, talk to anybody that be related to the case," said Sisk.

"It's a challenge," said Fye.

A challenge Fitz remembers well.

"I've worked on over 100 murder cases," he said. "I've tried 22 of them and there's no greater satisfaction than bringing justice to a family, when at the conclusion, the person that killed their son or daughter is held accountable and justice has been done."

That's why he's helping these students analyze every clue in front of them, and like a detective, they'll check off every piece of evidence knowing for the families involved, finding the killer is no game.

"We're going to be hounding dogs," said Fitz. "This is something that is not a one-year blip. We feel that we owe this to the victims of crime in Michigan, particularly the families of homicide. Those cases, as many as possible, need to be solved."

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