COLD CASE: MSU Students, State Police and Retired SPD Officers Investigating 41-Year-Old Murder
The Friday afternoon crowd at Thompson's Bar and Grill in Saline Township was a little larger and more boisterous than usual last week.
Three retired police officers joined Michigan State Police officers and students and faculty from Michigan State Police to debate the theories they've developed while investigating the 41-year-old murder of Mary Alice Ellicott.
On Oct. 14, 1981, a the 29-year-old Saline resident was reported missing by an acquaintance. She'd last been seen leaving "The Polar Bear," the establishment now known as Thompson's Bar and Grill, located on US-12 in Saline Township. She was seen between 6 and 7 p.m., Oct. 11, 1981 at the establishment and was seen leaving the bar. Hunters later found her dead in a grassy field off Braun Road, between Macon and Roehm roads just a half-mile from the Polar Bear.
Ellicott, who worked at the Polar Bear but wasn't on duty at the time of her disappearance, had been stabbed several times. The death was rule a homicide.
Last March, the Michigan State Police announced it was reopening the case with a newly formed cold case team that included students and faculty from Michigan State University and retired Saline Police Officers. They chose the Ellicott case because of work done by two retired police employees, Don Terry and Sandy Wood, who were volunteering to go through old police files while making room for a new gym in the police department. Terry and Wood decided it would worthwhile to catalog some of the old reports to do a book about the history of the Saline Police Department. Terry took interest in the Ellicott file - a case that rankled former police officers Mike Slagle and Bob Dietrich, who investigated the missing person case in 1981.
Then Police Chief Jerrod Hart gave Terry, Slagle and Dietrich the go-ahead to begin investigating the evidence and Hart reached out the Michigan State Police.
Detective Larry Rothman, impressed with their work, decided to take on the cold case in March of 2021, with the assistance of grad students and faculty at Michigan State University. This year, the MSP's cold cases division is being assisted by students in the Michigan State University School of Criminal Justice course called "Cold Case Investigations."
Karen Holt is an assistant professor in MSU's School of Criminal Justice. She's one of two faculty members leading the independent study course that brought five students to Saline Friday.
"We want to solve this case. These students want to get justice for Mary Ellicott," Holt said.
Twice a week, students work with detectives indexing and cataloging case files and evidence. On Fridays, the faculty join the students and and detectives, and they brainstorm about the case.
"We all have our favorite theories and favorite suspects. We bounce theories off of one another and it can sometimes get very lively," Holt said. "I love it because it challenges us to think about the alternatives. it's very easy to get tunnel vision. We generate a lot of questions and that’s a good thing because the more questions we generate, the more we have a chance of solving this."
Kirsten Siver is a senior studying Criminal Justice at MSU. She hopes to become a federal agent who investigates human trafficking.
“It’s a gold mine experience to be about to sit down with detectives and retired police officers and work this case to hopefully bring closure to the family," Siver said.
She said this course has drawn her attention more than the typical course.
"This definitely overwhelms me more than any other typical class. It’s for real. It’s a serious thing. It’s always on my mind, 24/7. I re-read the case. I brainstorm every night," Siver said.
She's got her theories too, though she can't reveal any suspects.
"I definitely feel like the person who did this crime was a very angry person and had a personal vendetta - maybe a vendetta against women," Siver said. "I think police will solve this case with extra forensic lab work."
Like Holt, she appreciated having the chance to bounce her ideas off Slagle, Dietrich and Terry.
"I was so excited to wake up this morning and to come here and actually see the place she was last seen. It just makes it more real," she said. "When we finally talked to them, you could tell they had their own suspects in mind and that some of our theories opened their eyes to other possibilities."
Holt said she is impressed with the way students immersed themselves in the investigation. The students have different backgrounds and interests and bring unique perspectives to the case.
"One of my colleagues couldn’t understand where the wounds were. So my anthropology student broke out a piece of paper and drew the body and where the wounds are and it helped everyone understand what we were talking about,"
One aspect of this course is that it's not just a student project - it's a true murder investigation. Only last week, police gave a polygraph test relating to the case. Some suspects are dead. Some are very much alive. Interviews continue with suspects, witnesses and people who might have information.
The group sat down for lunch last Friday, Det. Rothman fortuitously happened upon other patrons who happened to be at the Polar Bear the night Ellicott went missing and they had a discussion.
Rothman said the students' contributions to the investigation have been important.
"They bring fresh eyes to the case. They're excited. They bring an energy and a new perspective to the case," Rothman said. "They know this case inside and out. That's why I brought them out here. To get a feel for the location and to talk to these other gentlemen who've investigated this crime."
Will this cold case get solved? Will the killer of Mary Ellicott be brought to justice?
"I can't guarantee anything. It's been a long time. A lot of people have passed on," Rothman said. "But I will say that we're not going leave any stone unturned. New things are always happening - new technologies, new theories, new reasons to go down rabbit holes. We're not done by any stretch of the imagination."
And that's all former SPD Sgt. Bob Dietrich can ask for. He's encouraged by the students' interests and ideas, and by new policing techniques and technologies that could help solve the mystery.
"I think the one thing we want to be able to say is that we put all the time and energy we possibly could into this. So I think that from that standpoint, what's happening now is great," Dietrich said.
Will the case get cracked?
"That's anybody's guess. Whether it’s a scientific thing or whether someone comes forward and says something, it would be nice to solve this," he said.
Anyone with information about this case should contact D/Sgt. Larry Rothman at 313-407-9379 or RothmanL@michigan.gov.