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Arizona university launching cold case class this fall to help detectives solve cases

By Briana Whitney

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    PRESCOTT, Arizona (KPHO) — An Arizona university is trying to change the dire state some Arizona police departments are facing regarding resources to solve cold cases.

Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott is launching a course to help detectives solve cold cases this fall with their forensics department. The biggest issue detectives and deputies face with cold cases is the time and resources to pour into them. That’s where this new course could be a game changer with new eyes and minds who only are focusing on this each semester.

Highly confidential evidence mixed with new technologies will make this course one of the most notable in the country. “Everyone watches the shows, and everybody knows cold case files and all the podcasts, so there’s no shortage of students who want to take this course,” said Dr. Diana Orem.

Dr. Orem is the forensics psychology chair at Embry Riddle and is heading up the creation of this capstone cold case course. She’s working with a former crime scene investigator with the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office, who will teach the class. That teacher has a story behind the passion. “When we asked why? What inspired you? It was the ‘Little Miss Nobody’ case,” Dr. Orem said.

A young girl’s body was found in Arizona in 1960, but because she was unidentified, she became known as “Little Miss Nobody.”

It wasn’t until March 2022 when YCSO announced through DNA and genetic genealogy they were able to identify her as 4-year-old Sharon Lee Gallegos, who they learned went missing from her New Mexico home six decades earlier.

The program already has cases just like that one lined up to investigate, and they plan to have five senior students in the first cold case course this fall. But because they’ll be handling confidential evidence and information, there will be certain parameters. “They have to work in one room with laptops that they can’t take anywhere, and they’re not allowed to have their phones,” said Dr. Orem.

While the university’s forensics program exists outside of their well-known aviation schooling, Dr. Orem said they hope to use their drones to help solve these cases. “If I just explain to them the issue, we need to find human remains under the ground that could be buried up to 20 feet, I’m convinced they’ll find a way to do it,” she said.

And beyond drones, the university also does simulations. Dr. Orem said they’re looking at adapting virtual reality technology to recreate crime scenes that no longer exist. “Which makes it much more likely that the people that are working on the cold case investigation can walk through it in their minds and maybe see something or get a better understanding of how it played out and it could help them solve the case,” Dr. Orem said.

The course will launch this fall. To avoid the fatigue of cases, the work that one semester of students does will be passed onto the next group with fresh eyes, so they’re never getting shelved if it’s not solved in one semester. They are hoping to work with agencies all over Arizona, including Phoenix, and even tribal police as well since they know those are departments that really need the help.

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