STEPHANIE COYLE WAS 74 YEARS OLD when she died, a preternaturally cheerful and self-effacing grandmother.
According to her family, she lost her husband, who was terminally ill, to suicide in 1960. Years later, her long-time boyfriend died of a heart attack. She lived her last days in a second-story apartment in Arnold, Pennsylvania, one of the many small towns near Pittsburgh that eventually succumbed to drugs and disarray after the collapse of the steel industry. Coyle stayed active in the community, acting, in her own way, as a bulwark against its decline: She called bingo games at her local senior center and volunteered to drive people to and from church. On July 16, 1993, Coyle was found murdered in her apartment. Her throat was slashed, and her body had been stabbed a dozen times. The killer carved a design into her back, the details of which the police still won’t reveal to the public. Twenty-four years later, the case remains unsolved. I’m recounting only the publicly known details about Coyle’s case, because I’ve signed a confidentiality agreement. Not with the police, or with Coyle’s family—who tell the media that after more than two decades, they wish the police would share more information with the public—but with a group of college undergrads at the University of Pittsburgh. They call themselves the Students Conquering Cold Cases. Every Wednesday night, more than two dozen of them meet in the windowless classroom of a Brutalist lecture hall on campus to try to solve cases the police haven’t been able to figure out. The students could be in their dorms, on their phones, or out with friends, but instead they’re here, poring over case notes, interviewing victims’ family members, witnesses, and law enforcement, and trying to come up with theories of the crimes.
The Students Conquering Cold Cases was started in the fall of 2015 by Nicole Coons and Hannah Eisenhart, two undergrads who have been friends since they were little kids growing up in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The previous summer, Coons was at home playing tennis with her dad when she saw a friend putting up missing persons posters for 21-year-old Kortne Stouffer. Stouffer disappeared in 2012 after an evening out in Palmyra, Pennsylvania. She’s never been found, so friends and family members continue to put up posters and organize vigils for her, hoping it will help draw attention to her case. The friend hanging up missing persons posters told Coons she’d been with Stouffer on the night she went missing. The story hit close to home. The impact a crime can have on a community lasts years, as Coons saw when her friend hung posters years after the initial event. Coons wanted to help families like the Stouffers, so when she returned to college in the fall, she approached Ron Freeman, a retired police commander who was in charge of violent crime investigations for the Pittsburgh police, about organizing a group. Freeman now teaches at Pitt, and Coons, who studied political science with a minor in administration of justice, got to know him when she took his crime scene investigation course the year before. Freeman agreed to help advise the club, and Coons and Eisenhart spread word about it through some of the departments at the school, and through social media. Soon, the applications were flooding in. Coons, who has long, dark hair and brown eyes, sifted through the applications with Eisenhart, and then interviewed the students who submitted them. They selected students with at least a 3.2 GPA, who showed critical thinking skills and a willingness to share their work with other members of the club. They were also looking for students with a demonstrated interest in pursuing careers related to criminal justice and the law. Of the women in the group, she says, several are criminal justice majors; others want to become police officers, and a few are pursuing careers in forensic pathology.
The students have had the chance to work on cases both obscure and iconic. All of the crimes are local, or at least have a Pittsburgh connection. Last year, the club was approached by local handwriting expert named Michelle Dresbold, author of the 2006 book Sex, Lies and Handwriting, with a possible lead on a major cold case. There was a woman living in the city who suspected that her father might be the Zodiac killer, the infamous California serial killer who terrorized the public in a series of handwritten letters to Bay Area and is thought to have killed at least five people in the 1960s and 1970s. She gave Dresbold a Christmas card with his handwriting on it to investigate. Dresbold brought in the handwriting sample to show the students, and together they analyzed it against the Zodiac’s publicly released letters. Dresbold and the students felt that there were more than enough similarities to make the case worth pursuing further. The students invited the woman to a meeting of the club and Coons took a DNA swab of her cheek. “We’ll try to do a familial DNA match,” says Sarah Wachter, a senior finance and business information systems major who graduated from Pitt in the spring. “We’re taking it really seriously. It’s going to go to a lab in California. If anything goes on from there, one of us will be in court.” Alex Morgan, the club’s president, tries to keep expectations measured. Both the lab and law enforcement, she says, get “hundreds and hundreds” of tips like this and there's no guarantee it will be tested. “It will be hard to get them to substantiate our claim, but we’re working on trying to get them to run it,” Morgan says. Working on a case as well-known as that of the Zodiac killer gave the students a sense of power, and of purpose. Noelle Buchanan, another member of the group, describes the Zodiac case—which has bedeviled hundreds of law enforcement officers and detectives both amateur and professional—as “daunting, honestly.” “I didn’t believe it when Alex told us that we were looking into the Zodiac,” says Buchanan, a rising junior majoring in psychology and political science. “I was like, ‘No. No way. Are you kidding?’ But it [validates] us. We’re just college kids working on a case, and to look at a big case gives us power,” she says.
While they wait to hear back from the lab on the DNA sample, club members are looking into the Coyle case. At their last meeting, they interviewed the police officer who responded to the crime scene in 1993, and plan some follow up questions for him. Morgan, a philosophy and legal studies major, gives them different aspects of the case to focus on. They divide into small groups, circling their laptops like wagons on white cafe tables around the room. In one group, Allie Peck, a rising senior in a beanie and flannel, analyzes the Coyle crime scene with four other students. Some of them have elaborate outlines of highlighted notes on their laptops; others are trying to visualize the scene using Google Maps street view. One notes that the victim’s apartment doesn’t look like it’s in an area that would get a lot of foot traffic. “The victim probably knew the killer,” she theorizes. “She was probably targeted,” another student says. Club member Eric Spiker jumps up and turns to one of the large whiteboards that frame the walls of the room. He wants to draw his own map, to see if anything jumps out at him. He sketches a box to represent the victim’s house, then a yard, then another box, then a dog. “I should have been an artist,” he says, admiring his work. Spiker is a rarity in this group of amateur investigators: He’s one of only three men. The group is dominated by women, many of whom say that when they first heard about the club, they felt like it was made just for them. “When they first posted about the group on Facebook, my roommates sent me a screenshot and were like: ‘You need to join this,’ because they all know I’m really into learning about crime stuff,” says Marisa Pescatore, 21, a rising senior studying political science and communications with a long fishtail braid and a nameplate necklace.
True crime is having a moment in popular culture. The revival of the genre as a literary form, thanks to podcasts like Serial and documentary series like The Jinx and Making a Murderer, has expanded audiences and paved the way for a new generation of pen-chewing amateur investigators. But that’s not where these students get their inspiration from. Nor is it from My Favorite Murder, the wildly popular podcast that makes subversive comedy of women’s fears about being victimized. The roots of their interest go much deeper and can be traced to the scripted and non-fiction TV programs they grew up with as kids. “Ever since I was little, I’ve been really fascinated by anything involving crime, all sorts of murders—which sounds weird,” Pescatore says. “But I’ve always been into Nancy Drew, and now that I’m thinking about it, I was obsessed with the show CSI and I had them all on DVD. As I got older, I started getting into Investigation Discovery. It was cool to see the real stories of how police investigated crimes—not just the actors and the fake stuff.” It’s a common theme among the students in the group. Many of them profess a love for Investigation Discovery, the true crime offshoot of the Discovery Channel that consistently ranks at or near the top of cable networks watched by women ages 25-54. “I’ve always been really into this stuff. I watched a lot of CSI, I watched a lot of NCIS. I loved Abby—she was the CSI girl, she did all the science and knew everything. I admired her a lot,” says Courtney Jerioski, a senior who graduated in April. “When I was younger, maybe eight years old, my mom got me for Christmas this CSI head, it was a makeshift autopsy [kit], because that's what I was into when I was younger. Thankfully, she didn't think it was weird.” Jerioski used to want to be a police officer. But she’s small in stature and her involvement in the club has helped her realize that she wants to pursue criminal law instead. “I’m not very intimidating-looking and I don’t think anyone would take me seriously [as a cop],” she says, “but I think I’ll do a lot better in the courtroom, being able to work on cases.” She isn’t the only one who harbored childhood dreams of joining law enforcement. “I think I was a police officer for like three years for Halloween,” says Peck. She had the same CSI toy head (made by Planet Toys, for sale on Amazon for $115-$179.99) that Jerioski had.
Group members have worked on several cases in the two years since the club began. Some weeks, they talk to police officers and other experts to gather details of the investigations. Other weeks, they analyze what they have, trying to come up with follow-up questions and to surface possibilities the police might not have considered. They haven’t solved any crimes yet. But police officers take them seriously, and the students are committed to trying to help the victims—most of whom are female—and their family members find justice. “It’s a way to stand up and have a voice, for not only us, but for every other woman out there who may be victimized or who wants to maybe do what we’re doing. Just giving people hope—it really helps,” Wachter says. None of the club members understand exactly why it is mostly comprised of women. But some have come to see a distinct demographic advantage in their work. “I think people respond better to women, especially other women. They’d rather talk to a woman about sensitive things over a man,” Pescatore says. “Women's voices are more calming, we seem less aggressive. Even men have a better response to women, in some cases—especially young women.” “I think we also put ourselves in their position,” Amanda Mroz, a rising sophomore, says of the victims. They’ve finished their meeting about the Coyle investigation for the night, and have pulled up a few chairs in a circle in an adjoining room. It’s late enough that custodians have locked most of the doors in the building, and when they disband they’ll have to walk home through a snowstorm that has blanketed the campus and emptied the streets. Like the other women in the group, Mroz grew up watching Investigation Discovery. “My mom always thought it was like, weird or disturbing that I sat there and watched these shows. The one show I’d watch was Disappeared. The point of the show was that it was never solved in the end, they never really knew what happened. It would always bother me. Once the show was over I’d sit and think about it, I’d want to do something,” she says. “I would think, I can’t imagine how my family would feel if that was me, or, I can’t imagine what that would be like if it was my friend, or someone I knew.”
To grow up a girl in America is to be bombarded with images and messages about women who look like you, who seem like you—who could be you—being victimized. They follow you from your youth: the warnings from well-meaning loved ones not to walk home alone at night, the exhortations to never leave your drink alone, the litany of behaviors cautioned against because they might give a dangerous person some kind of opening. You see the news stories about women and girls who have gone missing or been murdered, girls you knew, or didn’t know, but could imagine being friends with. You hear the stories about the women who go missing and don’t get enough coverage, because the they aren't conventionally pretty enough or white enough or virtuous enough to be taken seriously by law enforcement and the media. The images are there in television shows, any time you turn on the TV—an entire genre built around dead girls on autopsy tables. Growing up bombarded by these images and messages does something to your brain. It’s a common experience, one that shapes women and girls in ways profound but unseen. At a certain point, it becomes impossible not to imagine these things happening to you. I know this from experience. I was the same age as these students when I started my own small book collection on serial killers, and if the club had been around when I was a student at Pitt, I would have joined in a heartbeat. I was an anxious girl who grew into an anxious young woman—the kind who laid awake in bed at night, talking myself through elaborate scenarios for how I’d save myself and my family if someone ever broke into our house. If I’m honest, I’m still that young woman at times. Something about the fear I felt at that age made me curious. I wanted to know everything I could, to arm myself with knowledge, about why some men have an impulse to hurt women. I never found the answers I was looking for, and now I know that what I was looking for might have always been, in some ways, unknowable. “There are so many women that are victims,” Wachter says. She’s talking not just about murder, but about a much broader range of crimes, including campus sexual assault. “I’m not only speaking for myself, but for women.” Pescatore offers an example: Recently, she says, a student at Pitt was mugged at gunpoint. It was 10 p.m.on a Friday night. I did not tell Pescatore or her friends that, a decade ago, I was that Pitt student. I think it was a Saturday night, and not a Friday, but otherwise the basic details were the same. Violence, when it happens to you, can change you forever. But even just the anticipation of violence can shape you in ways that are never entirely obvious to you. That’s why it’s not entirely surprising to me that so many of the members of the Students Conquering Cold Cases Club would be drawn to crime. By hunting down the facts, and trying to solve cold cases, they’re inserting themselves in the narrative—not as victims, but as investigators. They’re looking for answers to those questions that linger in their brains, the questions that keep them up at night. Questions like, who killed Stephanie Coyle?