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Students try to crack famous cold cases

  • Story Highlights
  • College students try to solve Chandra Levy, Natalee Holloway mysteries
  • Crime clubs active on three campuses in Georgia, Alabama
  • Criminal justice students learn crime-solving techniques in real-life situations
  • Findings are forwarded to law enforcement after yearlong research project
  • Next Article in Crime »
By Ann O'Neill
CNN
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CNN is following four Bauder College students as they build their case files in the Chandra Levy and Natalee Holloway investigations. The Campus Crime Club is part of CNNU, which features student perspectives on news and trends from colleges across the United States. Got a tip? E-mail the class at ColdCaseTips@USACops.com

Students bounce theories off Detective Vince Velasquez of the Atlanta Police Department cold case squad.

Danielle Zayas, Antonio Wilson, Charna-Marie Dixon and Jennifer Gosdin will file monthly logs.

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- The homicide cop, the prosecutor, the stalking expert and the psychic fielded questions about two unsolved mysteries in a large, sunny room with a skeleton laid out on a table and timelines posted on the walls.

The topic was Chandra Levy, the 24-year-old Bureau of Prisons intern whose 2001 disappearance prompted an investigation that exposed an affair with a congressman, but didn't lead to any arrests.

Psychic medium Reese Christian told the Bauder College criminal justice students that she's been meditating and is getting a mental picture of Levy's killer: He might be employed by the federal government. He might be a serial killer. And he looks like the actor Bill Paxton.

A photo of Paxton, best known for his roles in the movie "Twister" and the HBO series "Big Love," was passed around while a student retrieved a photo of a man the group refers to as "Suspect 3." The two were compared and the resemblance was uncanny.

It may be a coincidence, or perhaps another piece of the puzzle. The students agreed it was definitely time for a closer look at Suspect 3.

The public spotlight long ago faded from the Chandra Levy and Natalee Holloway cases, but they are getting a fresh look at three college campuses, thanks to the Cold Case Investigative Research Institute, or CCIRI for short. It's a fancy name for a college crime club that brings the nuts and bolts of criminal justice to life for students pursuing careers in the field.

It also brings new eyes to old cases that have been relegated to the back burner as unsolvable. Learn more about the students we're following »

Beth Holloway, Natalee's mother, spoke in person with the crime club earlier this year. She thanked the students for taking another look at her daughter's case.

Holloway, an 18-year-old graduate of Mountain Brook High School near Birmingham, Alabama, disappeared in May 2005 while on a class trip to Aruba. She was last seen with three young men, all locals, who have been arrested and questioned several times. Holloway's body has never been found, and no one has been charged with a crime.

Using real-life cases is the best way to groom the next generation of crime-solvers, crime club founder Sheryl McCollum believes. She started teaching at Bauder in 2002 after spending 25 years working in the criminal justice system. Video Watch Director Sheryl McCollum talk about the investigation »

"It brings textbooks to life. I think it's the best way to teach," McCollum said. "I wanted the students to see that all their studying and knowledge could be put into practice, and to have a sense of 'real-world' investigative work."

Based in Atlanta, Georgia, Bauder College offers two- and four-year degrees in fashion, business, information technology, medical assistance, interior design and, of course, criminal justice. Many of the 850 students juggle full-time jobs and families with their course work.

For the next several months, CNN will follow four Bauder students as they build their case files in the Levy and Holloway investigations.

"I think it's amazing what Sheryl McCollum is doing at Bauder College by providing these students with a hands-on opportunity to study a real-life criminal investigation," Beth Holloway said in a statement to CNN. "I'm very pleased that they have chosen to work on Natalee's case. "

The students will work from the public record, comb the Internet and conduct interviews. And they will learn crime-solving techniques from professionals, such as building timelines, creating suspect and victim profiles, reconstructing crime scenes, interpreting blood stains and analyzing the paths bullets take.

The students -- Jennifer Gosdin, 27, Antonio Wilson, 26, Danielle Zayas, 24, and Charna-Marie Dixon, 19 -- will file monthly logs, which will be posted on CNN.com. They also will file several special reports as they go on field trips to take an independent look at crime scenes, talk to witnesses and learn specialized investigative techniques.

Gosdin hopes to join a police dive team in Florida. Wilson wants to work as a juvenile probation officer. Zayas is considering law school. Dixon already has found a job as a corrections officer in neighboring DeKalb County.

They are among the 80 students in the club, which began at Bauder in 2005. Last year, the crime club grew to include students at Auburn University Montgomery and Faulkner University in Alabama.

For the Levy and Holloway cases, Auburn students will handle the crime scene and geographic details, while Faulkner students will delve into the victims' profiles. The Bauder students are focusing on the suspects.

Crime club students aren't graded, and they don't receive credit for club work, but there's never a shortage of volunteers. The club meets at least once a month and has its own classroom lab on the Bauder campus.

At the end of the year, students at the three campuses will compare notes, and then write and forward a final report to law enforcement that says whether the case is solvable. Past cases include Tupac Shakur, the hip-hop artist gunned down in Las Vegas, Nevada, and Wayne Williams, the man convicted in the Atlanta child murders case. Students found the Williams case solvable, but Shakur's slaying was ruled "undetermined."

This year's Levy and Holloway investigations seem to carry special meaning for the students.

"Natalee Holloway was graduating high school. She had so many plans, so many things to do, so it just makes it a little more close to home," Gosdin said. "It could happen to any of us. You just, you never know."

"They identify very well with Natalee and with Chandra," McCollum said. "With Chandra, she was a criminal justice major at one time, and she had aspirations of going into the federal government; a lot of our students do as well. And with Natalee, I've got several students who are 19, 20 years old, really on that cusp of starting their college career."

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Susan Levy and Beth Holloway personally met with the crime club class of 2008. One student, Antonio Wilson, was so moved that he drove to Natalee Holloway's hometown, Mountain Brook, Alabama, after talking with her mother.

"The students became completely dedicated once they met the family members of the victims," McCollum said. "The victims are real people, the cases are real cases, and the research is real investigative work."

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