NC State partners with the NC State Bureau of Investigation to uncover cold cases.
On Tuesday, Oct. 18, 1994, 35-year-old Kathi Goff Kennedy was found dead in her Kernersville, NC, apartment by her mother. After not hearing from Kennedy that day and knocking on her door, her mother entered the unit—which Kennedy and her family had been living in for only three weeks—to find her beaten and stabbed. She was last seen alive the evening prior. Found inside were Kennedy’s two young daughters—4 years old and 18 months—who had been left unharmed. Kennedy’s husband, who was out of town at the time, was not considered a suspect.
Fast-forward nearly 28 years, and the truth behind this brutal murder, which left a family devastated, a community rocked and uneasy, and investigators flummoxed, has yet to be uncovered.
Like Kennedy’s story, trails have run cold for criminal cases across the U.S., from unsolved homicides and unidentified remains to missing persons investigations. And while it’s hard to stomach, these individuals become another dusty file or box of bones unless—or until—their case is cracked.
Today, the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation’s Cold Case Investigation Team, launched in 2020, is reviewing more than 800 unsolved homicides and unidentified human remains cases that the SBI has worked on between its establishment in 1937 and 2018, according to Nathaniel Thompson, the assistant special agent in charge of the CCIT.
Statewide, the number of cold cases is actually much higher because, while the SBI is available to help local agencies, Thompson explains that larger police departments, like those in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Raleigh and Durham, don’t call on the SBI when a homicide occurs, as they already have the necessary manpower and training. Therefore, those cases are not included in the SBI’s files.
Thompson notes that one reason cold cases stack up is because many of the agents working them often have to pause partway through to investigate recent homicides. In other words: The cases continue to run cold.
On the Case
Enter Dr. Ann Ross, a forensic anthropologist and professor at NC State University. This fall, she’ll be teaching an undergraduate-level course called Cold Case Investigations, where students will review a cold case, like Kennedy’s, supplied by the SBI.
“The goal of this is to provide the SBI with new leads,” says Ross. “And to have some fresh eyes look at areas of potential, maybe new things that can be—if the evidence is available—resampled, or new leads, that type of thing.”
While the class is new, Ross is far from green when it comes to assisting with investigations. Her lab at the university holds a contract with the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services to handle forensic anthropology casework for the state, and throughout her career, she’s assisted with the murder investigations of 19-month-old DeVarion Gross, 13-year-old Erica Parsons and 27-year-old Laura Ackerson, among many others.
“A big chunk of my casework is looking for trauma and trying to assess the type and class of tool that was used,” adds Ross.
Prior to joining NC State in 2003, she deployed to Bosnia postwar to help identify human remains, and worked for the Panama Truth Commission and Chile’s National Commission for Truth and Reconciliation. She’s also an intermittent federal employee for the Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team, for which she deployed to Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Haiti after the earthquake in 2010 to identify victims.
It is here in Raleigh, however, from her nearly 1,000-square-foot university lab, where “the bone expert,” as she is often called, now spends most of her days among digital microscopes, incubators used to remove tissue, and a few tables large enough to lay out complete sets of remains in anatomical position. That is, when she isn’t training the next generation.
“I like opening [students’] minds and teaching them things they haven’t thought about, and engaging with young women and men who are so enthusiastic,” she says.
Schooling the Next Generation
Just 13 students—all of whom are required to sign a confidentiality agreement—will learn the ins and outs of cold case investigations from Ross this fall. Focusing on a 2005 case and utilizing the second edition of Cold Case Homicides: Practical Investigative Techniques, a textbook written by R.H. Walton, she’ll walk them through how to review reports, construct a crime event timeline, and provide new directions for subsequent investigations.
“[Students] are actually reviewing a real cold case and coming up with real leads and have full access to it—to the investigators, to the crime scene pictures,” says Thompson, who selected the case for the class. “[They] will have a list of what the evidence is and past examinations at the crime lab and that kind of stuff.”
One important thing students will determine is whether advances in technology might be able to provide new information in the case. For example, state crime labs can study palm prints now, rather than just fingerprints, and forensic genetic genealogy can be used to identify close genetic DNA profiles or matches of DNA found at a crime scene.
“You’re talking about a case that is over 15 years old… so if there’s a potential to do genealogy, or they say, ‘Hey, we need to resubmit this for touch DNA,’ then we will do it. It’s just their time to study it,” says Thompson.
At the end of the semester, students will write a report that notes their findings and suggestions, which will go into the SBI case file, as well as present their work to the local detective on the case and a member of the SBI’s CCIT.
While Ross will be leading the course, it was Thompson’s idea to start a class of this nature at NC State. As the CCIT’s assistant special agent in charge, part of his job is overseeing its college and university program, where he creates opportunities for higher education institutions to assist with cold case investigations.
In fact, NC State is the fourth college in the state to partner with the SBI and offer a cold case investigation course. East Carolina University held its first class in 2020, and when Thompson took over the CCIT in 2021, he expanded the program to Campbell and Saint Augustine’s universities. He hopes to eventually partner with eight schools in North Carolina.
“I see some really positive things coming out of [this program]. Now, has it solved a case yet? No. But obviously we just started this in 2020,” says Thompson. “I think [students] are getting a lot of benefits as far as exposure to this type of work. Especially, we’re targeting criminal justice students who may go into the field, so it’s a recruitment tool— and it’s a real case.”
In addition to the recruiting benefit, there is a reason Thompson feels a sense of urgency to have fresh eyes on old cases, whether it’s the 2005 case that Ross’ class will study or Kennedy’s case from 1994.
“We are trying to go through these cases where evidence still exists and where people that are in the case are still living,” says Thompson. “… Now we have the technology to have the evidence corroborate what [an eyewitness was] saying, and if that eyewitness dies and the evidence is gone, guess what? You can’t do anything with that case, and somebody got away with murder.”