Braving snakes, bugs, heat and humidity, a group of 40 Towson University students armed with shovels fanned out across a remote, heavily wooded Kentucky mountaintop in early June.
For three long days, they dug.
They were searching the Ohio County property of Vernon Calloway, the brother-in-law of a woman who disappeared nearly 25 years ago. Vernon and his wife, Debra, would eventually be charged in connection with the murder of Vernon's brother Larry's wife, Patricia "Patsy" Calloway. Debra was convicted. Vernon died before he could be brought to trial. But before he died, he appeared to have left behind an important clue: tucked away in an ammunition box on his property, a crude map and apparent confession to the murder.
The map led investigators to a tree with a cross chain-sawed into the trunk. But their search for a clandestine grave yielded no results, and Patsy's body was never found.
That's where Towson stepped in. Led by Dana Kollmann, a professor in the department of sociology, anthropology and criminal justice, the Forensic Science Student Organization has made searching for human remains in cold case investigations something of a specialty.
Kollmann, who worked in the Baltimore County crime lab as a forensic investigator, said that her team of students provides an invaluable service to often overworked and under-resourced law enforcement agencies. For the students, she added, their fieldwork provides an invaluable experience as well — the opportunity to work hand-in-hand with homicide detectives and get real-world experience on what would otherwise be a closed crime scene.
"You can't just go intern on a homicide scene or just walk into the medical examiner's office and say, 'I'm going to hang out and watch autopsies,'" Kollmann said. "You can study all you want, but then your resume looks like every other straight-A student. You've got to get your hands dirty."
Many of the students in the group are majoring in either forensic chemistry or criminal justice, although Kollmann doesn't turn anyone away — she's had history, psychology and English majors join the group. (She says there's a job for everyone.) The field investigations offer the students a unique opportunity to try it out before committing to a career in forensics.
"For some students, when we've found a body, some have said, 'Thank you very much. This is the worst day of my life, and I'm changing my major.' And for other students, it validates what they want to do," she said.
While TV shows like "CSI" have likely been responsible for attracting more students to the field of forensics, Kollmann said there are still many myths to dispel.
For one, you have to have a stomach for it, she said. "You're doing things that are, in many regards, pretty gross."
The other big difference between TV and real-life investigations, Kollmann said, is that the cases often don't tie up neatly.
"We can't write the ending. On 'CSI' and other shows, there's a beginning, middle and a conclusion. A lot of the cases I've worked — whether a body search or an active crime scene — the ending doesn't always come immediately, and sometimes it doesn't come at all."
Despite their efforts in Kentucky, that remains the situation with the Patsy Calloway investigation.
Still, though Patsy's body was not recovered, Kollmann and the investigators feel certain that they were in the right place. As Kollmann explained, clandestine graves tend to be shallow, and after two decades exposed to weather and a large coyote population, the likelihood of preservation is low.
"If she was in the area, we would have found her. If there was anything left of her to find," Kollmann said. "I believe to the core of me that she, at some point, was out there. And I think her soul is still out there."
—Leah Soleil for Towson University