It was hot, dirty work, searching every inch of a section of Kentucky’s Kincaid Lake State Park for a belt buckle, a shoelace eyelet, a hint of disturbed earth.
But Towson University professor Dana Kollmann’s 37 students made short work of it, searching the area in just three days. The trip was part investigation, part lesson.
“You can teach in front of a classroom and students can take a test ... and certainly that’s part of teaching,” Kollmann said. “But my goal is to get them out there in the field, in the dirt, meeting with families who are grieving, and see the reality of what we do.”
The trip this week was an effort to find out what happened to Randy Sellers, a Kenton County, Ky., teen who vanished at age 17 nearly 40 years ago.
Sellers’ parents are still searching for answers and detectives in Kenton County, a northern Kentucky county bordering Cincinnati, have renewed efforts to solve the case, with help from Towson University’s Forensic Science Student Organization.
“They paid their way, came out and sent 37 of the most interesting and hardworking students I’ve ever really worked with,” said Detective Brian Jones, one of the Kenton County detectives on the case.
The students worked methodically, digging up small pieces of the ground to search for evidence of disturbed soil. They also used ground-penetrating radar and metal detectors, looking for objects underground that would have survived after decades in a shallow grave, such as remnants of clothing. Their efforts were to investigate a new lead on the decades-old case.
“For this particular case, the primary challenge is we’re looking for evidence that is 40 years old,” Kollmann said. “We’re truly looking for a needle in a haystack. But we have found needles in a haystack before.”
Sellers disappeared in August 1980 from Morning View, Ky. According to previous reports, Sellers attended the Kenton County Fair with friends and became intoxicated. Police took him into custody and drove him to an area near his home, and he has not been seen or heard from since.
In the 1990s, alleged serial killer Donald Leroy Evans claimed responsibility for killing more than 70 people, including Sellers, in 22 states. Evans told investigators he had buried Sellers’ body in Kincaid Lake State Park and drew a crude map to the location.
But investigators never found a body. And in 1999, Evans, then on death row for killing a 10-year-old girl, was fatally stabbed by a fellow inmate. The case went cold.
Last year, Jones said, a park ranger had some spare time and sat down with the case file.
“Fresh eyes had looked at the map and it was decided that perhaps they were interpreting the map upside down,” Kollmann said.
With the map flipped, investigators honed in on a new section of the park, 3 or 4 acres of wooded hillside. Cadaver dogs sniffed out hot spots, areas where they could smell signs of decomposition. Then, someone familiar with Kollmann’s work asked her bring a team down.
The Towson University professor, a former forensic services technician with the Baltimore County Police Department, started taking the Forensic Science Student Organization to investigate cases around 2012.
The program benefits both parties. For investigators and the families looking for answers, the students are a welcome infusion of manpower that makes searching large areas of land for hints of a missing person – like a tooth or piece of bone – easier. Jones said without the student team, the search could have taken more than a week. With them, it took three days.
Kollmann said students have found important evidence before. On one trip, she said, a student arrived on site, reached down into the mud and pulled out a human tooth.
For students, the program is a way to get real-world experience in the field.
Noelle Neff, 21, a senior biology major, said the searches she has been on are part of a portfolio of real-world experience Kollmann gives students that will be helpful when she graduates and seeks a career in crime-scene investigation.
“It just makes you stand out,” Neff said.
Madolyn Robertson, 20, a junior criminal justice major, said the most eye-opening part of the trip was an emotional meeting with Randy’s mother and stepfather, Wanda and John Cotton. She said the couple, now aging, passed around pictures of Sellers.
“It was like, wow, this is a real thing,” Robertson said. “It isn’t just a case victim, this was a real man.”
In investigating crime scenes, Kollmann said it is easy to remove one’s self — no one can cry with every victim or go to every funeral. But she wants students going on to careers in the field to have an experience with the family of a victim to look back on.
“Everybody has to have one, just one person to bring it back home,” she said.
Kollmann said the students did not get college credit for the experience and volunteered their time – in fact, students had to contribute to the trip fund to help cover the costs of the bus there and lodging in university housing that was closed for the summer.
“They want experience and to make their resumès stand out, but they also were driven and wanted to find Randy,” Kollmann said.
After three days, Kollmann said students found no conclusive evidence Sellers had been buried in that area. But it does not mean the trip was a failure, she said.
“That means we know where Randy Sellers isn’t, and we don’t have to go to the side of that mountain again,” Kollmann said.
For Robertson, the goal was not just finding evidence, it was “proving that there’s still somebody out there who cares about Randy.” She recalled something John Cotton, Sellers’ stepfather, asked the students: Who will care about Randy when he and his wife are no longer here?
“It was important to show him there were 40 students in this room that will never forget that experience, that will never forget Randy,” Robertson said.