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Jillian Clair is one of 50 students that Detective-Constable Mike Arntfield is putting to the task of re-examining cold cases, focusing on unsolved serial killings. (Geoff Robins for The Globe and Mail)
Jillian Clair is one of 50 students that Detective-Constable Mike Arntfield is putting to the task of re-examining cold cases, focusing on unsolved serial killings. (Geoff Robins for The Globe and Mail)

UWO meets CSI as students investigate cold cases Add to ...

Students in Mike Arntfield’s class at the University of Western Ontario will get an unusual assignment this upcoming academic year: solve a murder.

A full-time cop and part-time professor, Detective-Constable Arntfield arms students who sign up for his course, The Serial Killer in the Media & Popular Culture, with basic police investigative techniques and skills. Then they analyze and maybe help crack decades-old cold cases from around North America.

The two-year-old course offered by the Faculty of Information and Media Studies has become more popular than latex gloves at a crime scene. While the students have not cracked any cases, their work has drawn praise from some police investigators.

“These students can bring enthusiasm, fresh eyes and imagination to these cases, most of which occurred even before they were born,” said Det.-Const. Arntfield, a 30-year-old who, when he is not carrying books, carries a badge on the streets of London, Ont., as a 12-year veteran on the city force’s vice unit.

He divides his 50 students into “squads” of five or six, mirroring police case-management methods. A student with computer skills might build a database, while a journalism student conducts the interviews and an aspiring PR executive becomes the case manager.

Focusing mainly on unsolved serial killings, they sift through archival news clippings and use modern technology such as social networks to find people and Google Maps to plot crime scenes.

“It’s a matter of scrutinizing what has been done and identifying what else could be done, what’s missing and what could be done better,” Det.-Const. Arntfield said.

The students send any solid leads to police.

In the spring semester, Jillian Clair headed a team that tracked down and interviewed a man who police at the University of Wisconsin consider a suspect in a 1960s campus murder.

“I had this huge feeling of dread,” Ms. Clair said. “It’s time to call up this man who potentially killed a woman 40 years ago.”

In 1968, a blonde 18-year-old freshman named Christine Rothschild was strangled and stabbed to death, her corpse left behind the bushes outside a lecture hall.

Much of the evidence has disappeared, making modern techniques such as DNA matching difficult.

“Memories are faded, witnesses are deceased,” said Detective-Lieutenant Peter Ystenes, who heads the campus police department's detective bureau in Madison, Wisc. “But this is one case that really hits people.”

No one was ever arrested, but among the suspects was a resident surgeon at the university hospital who had a history of erratic behaviour and left the campus shortly after the murder.

Now 84 and living in New York, he denied he was the killer but in a lengthy interview with Ms. Clair was remarkably candid about his attitude towards the murder.

He said it sounded “like an act of rage” and that the reported 14 stab wounds were “too many – one good thrust would do the job if you had the knowledge of anatomy to do it.”

The students sent their 40-page analysis – which concluded that the crime was probably not the work of a serial killer – to the Madison police, who were impressed with the professionalism of the interview.

“I thought they had good questions,” said Det.-Lt. Ystenes, who noted that the man was less guarded with the students than with police.

“He is still a ‘person of interest,’ ” the detective said. “It’s a fairly short list and he’s on it.”

“It brought the case to the forefront again,” said Linda Schulko, a college friend of Ms. Rothschild who has helped organize memorial services for her classmate and was also interviewed by the students. “It was a remarkable gift from them, like a breath of fresh air.”

Classrooms are nothing new for Det.-Const. Arntfield. For nine of his past 12 years as a police officer, he has attended the university as a part-time student, upgrading his BA and then completing his PhD in media studies.

That combination of student and cop made Det.-Const. Arntfield a popular, if demanding, teacher.

“He pushes you beyond your comfort zone,” Ms. Clair said.

“Above all else, he taught us to think critically and analytically, to dig below the surface,” said Jared Lindzon, a former student and now a freelance writer who credits Mr. Arntfield with pushing him to become an investigative journalist.

Several students are seriously considering careers in law enforcement, although Det.-Const. Arntfield insists he’s not trying to recruit students – just inspire them.

Ege Zorlu, a 20-year-old international student from Turkey whose parents are doctors, was planning a career in business until he was wowed by Mr. Arntfield’s lectures.

“His action-filled memories were like SWAT movies,” he said. “University professors can be pretty cool people.”

Now Mr. Zorlu - also a 220-pound body builder – hopes to get his Canadian citizenship after graduating and become a police officer.

“He made me realize if you’re dedicated enough you can be an intellectual cop,” he says. “He made it appealing.”

Det.-Const. Arntfield’s cold-case class has been in such high demand over the past two years that this semester, in addition to his regular course, he plans to set up a year-round “investigative society” to accommodate up to two dozen more people.

He hopes two larger squads of 12 can tackle more complex cases. He also wants them to draw upon the expertise of the school’s professors and researchers in such fields as archaeology, entomology and photography.

The club will be an extra-curricular activity with no academic credits, but Det.-Const. Artnfield expects it to fill rapidly.

The cop-turned-prof readily admits that many students – raised on forensic TV dramas like CSI and Bones – may be drawn by what he calls “the guilty pleasure” of examining serial killers.

“That’s fine. You can sign up for the gory details and macabre experience of it,” he said. “But the price of admission is that that natural interest is going to be retooled to serve the interest of justice.”

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