Sheryl McCollum is remarkably upbeat for someone who has spent most of her life surrounded by tragedy. There’s something reminiscent of the comforts of home underlying her thick Georgia accent. Within five minutes of sitting down together, I get the feeling she would invite me home and cook dinner for me if she thought I was hungry. That feeling, I would learn, stems from an almost superhuman capacity for compassion.
Sheryl (Mac, to her friends) began her career over 25 years ago at the Rape Crisis Center of Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta. Since then, she’s worked with the Department of Corrections, the office of Secretary of State, the FBI, and served as coordinator of the statewide response to the 1996 bombing of the Atlanta Olympic Games. Today she’s a CSI with Metro Atlanta PD. Somewhere along the way (2004, to be exact), she founded the Cold Case Investigative Research Institute (CCIRI), an organization staffed by student and expert volunteers dedicated to finding new evidence in cases that have been frozen in time.
I’m exhausted simply summarizing how much work she has done to find justice for victims. So it’s remarkable that she has the energy to host extracurricular events like the Wine & Crime and Bloody Brunch sessions we can look forward to at CrimeCon.
These sessions have, so far, been shrouded in mystery. Participants must sign a non-disclosure agreement, and cell phones are not allowed. No tweeting, no texting; nothing leaves the room. That’s because we’re about to lend our amateur investigation skills to a real cold case.
“This event is tailor-made for true crime junkies,” Sheryl says. “We’ll treat you just like we would any rookie police officer or rookie detective in the war room of the homicide unit.”
I am instantly hooked. This is the holy grail for CSI fans everywhere.
“I’m giving you exactly what we know about a case that we’re working on. I’m holding nothing back. You’ll get the autopsy reports, the crime scene photographs, witness statements-- anything that we have, you will have. Then you go to work.”
Best of all, we may get to see the results of our efforts.
“When we get back from CrimeCon, we’re going to put every suggestion you give us into action,” Sheryl continues. “If you’ve ever watched your favorite shows and said “Why didn’t they talk to this guy? Why didn’t they do it this way or that way?”, now is your chance to put those instincts to work. We’ll post updates if and when your theories turn up anything on the case.”
Participants in this event may not realize how lucky they are. In the room with us will be world-renowned experts Kelly Ayres (forensics), Dwayne Thompson (homicide), and Cindy Hatfield (criminal profiler). That’s nearly 100 years of combined experience at our disposal to help us find new ways to look at this mystery. It’s enough to make even the most casual true crime enthusiast giddy.
And there’s wine! But even the wine has a role to play in this event.
“We wanted to reinvent the ‘wanted’ poster,” explains Sheryl. “People just don’t walk up to light poles and look at missing person posters anymore. They get lost among signs for garage sales or missing cats. So we put actual victims on the label of these wine bottles with a synopsis of their case.” (These are available for purchase from Benefit Wines any time you want to get tipsy and solve a crime. One hundred percent of the proceeds are deployed directly to investigating the case on the label.)
So, is there an expectation that we’ll actually come up with something that will solve the case featured at Wine & Crime? It certainly wouldn’t be the strangest thing Sheryl has ever seen.
“A student volunteer recently helped find a potential witness in a cold case using a mobile app,” she explains with a new level of excitement. “We wanted to re-interview the victim’s landlord, but nobody could find him at first. Within two days, a student at Chatham University found him using an app called Stud or Dud.”
Stud or Dud is an app created to provide the user with basic background information about potential romantic partners. The app itself may sound a little sleazy at first, but we didn’t spend all this time obsessed with true crime without learning that people aren’t always what they seem, did we?
This brand of technology-driven investigative methodology is the beginning of a trend Sheryl sees more and more in her work with CCIRI. It’s a double-edged sword, she explains.
“Two things are about to happen. One, the next generation of investigators will be able to do things beyond anything we can understand right now. Even your smartphone recognizes your fingerprint now. Eventually, we’ll be able to take prints and run them right on a phone or tablet and get results instantly. Crime scene photos, measurements, witness statements-- everything we gather on a case is about to go mobile. We can even use drones to document crime scenes, and it’s great to be able to view that from anywhere.”
But, as is always the case, convenience comes at a cost. In every industry, as operations become more automated and technology-driven, the human element decreases in kind.
“The second thing,” she warns, “is that something will be lost. There’s no substitute for seeing a crime scene with your own eyes. Let’s say you have a victim found in a wooded area. What’s on the other side of that woods? Is it a subdivision? Is it a brothel? Is it a church? It matters. Your suspect pool is going to depend on that answer because that suspect felt comfortable enough to go to that spot. And a video isn’t going to show you that. Technology is great, but sometimes you still have to get your hands in the dirt. Sometimes you just need a pencil and a piece of paper.”
She’s already seeing the effects of the Digital Age as new generations enter the field.
“We have students who are extraordinarily bright and great with the technology, but they can’t talk to people. And that means people aren’t going to talk to them. There are still pockets of the population that aren’t at all tech-savvy. They’re not going to log onto the internet to submit a tip, they aren’t going to call the police to tell them they saw something. You have to knock on their door and talk to them.”
Sheryl is exceptionally easy to talk to, and it occurs to me that this may have been a factor in her outstanding success as an investigator. Again, it’s her immeasurable ability to care about people which lends itself to this task, and I can tell she cares about every family that has approached CCIRI with their loved one’s unsolved case. With thousands of cold cases out there and a staff of unpaid student volunteers, how could one possibly decide which cases to take?
Initially, CCIRI only worked one case per year. Over the course of time, experienced juniors and seniors began assisting underclassmen to help them learn from the case. This freed up enough time for Sheryl to begin taking on more requests, and today they’re re-investigating five cases simultaneously.
“We used to take cases based on an area of study for the students. We looked at Natalee Holloway because it’s a water crime scene, we took Chandra Levy because it’s a forensic anthropology case. But as we became established and gained legitimacy, families began coming to us with cases and we try to address them all eventually.”
And how’s that working out? Pretty well, it seems.
To date, CCIRI has achieved some degree of success on every case they’ve re-investigated. Every case. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean they were all solved.
But any progress on a cold case, Sheryl notes, is indeed a success. “Whether that success means that laws were changed as a result of something we found, a new witness came forward that hadn’t been interviewed before, or a suspect finally agreed to a polygraph, it’s still a win.”
She attributes that success to the overwhelming generosity of the experts and volunteers at CCIRI.
“Some of these people could make so much money teaching or working in the field instead of volunteering for us, but they come and give everything they have to help these families. Some of them travel across the country and back to do the work. They don’t sleep, they’re not home for dinner, and they’re doing it because they genuinely want to make a difference. Are they going to solve every single one? No. But they care about every single one.”
I’m willing to bet they learned that from her.