Finding the Alteration: A Cold Case Investigation in Saline

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“When does a homicide no longer become important?”

One of the detectives I work with recently posed this question. The answer is never. While law enforcement may lack the resources to continue with investigations, the cases that have gone cold never lose their importance, even if they lose priority. 

An epidemic of cold cases has resulted in law enforcement creating innovative methods to organize and investigate these crimes. In our case, law enforcement reached out to academia. And we were more than willing to bring everything that we had to reexamine these cases. This partnership has been invaluable. But there are more resources that we can draw from – and that is the members of the community where crimes have occurred – in some cases, your own backyard.

Mary Alice Ellicott is a name the town of Saline is familiar with, despite the brief amount of time she resided there. What has left an impression is her violent death, which has gone unsolved for nearly 41 years. The original detectives who worked on this case were determined to solve it – that is clear from the thousands of pages in the case file which detailed their tireless efforts. Sometimes, despite the dedication and hard work, investigations come to a dead end. But that isn’t always the end of the story – sometimes the passage of time can work in your favor. And that is exactly what happened with Mary’s case.

Prior to the collaboration between Michigan State Police and Michigan State University, we didn’t know much about Mary other than she had been a high-risk victim. A history of trauma, violent relationships, and excessive drinking all played a factor in her death. But Mary was not just a homicide victim. She was a reliable, open, and trustworthy young woman who loved children and was a natural with them. She prided herself on being a survivor, and despite some bad situations she had been in, she was always looking for a fresh start. In fact, that is why she had moved to Saline – to start over.

We have also learned a great deal about who did this. The law enforcement/academic model allowed for many noted experts in forensic psychology, criminal profiling, and criminology to examine the crime scene to infer the characteristics of the offender. Advances in DNA technology allow for the detection and extraction of DNA where before it seemed impossible. These were resources that were not available to Saline PD in 1981. But we have them now.

The details of her death have been reported, retold, and now almost resemble folk legend. Most residents of Saline do not have direct ties to her, but a crime such as this has lasting impacts on the community, and many are familiar with the case. We view this as an invaluable resource, and we invite community members to reach out and share their stories with us. No detail is too small – everything is data that we consider in our analysis.

One of my favorite crime shows, HBO’s El Jardin de Bronce (2017), stars an enigmatic detective who explains that:

“All crimes leave a trace. All crimes. They alter reality. Things are set in harmony and balance and then BOOM. When a crime happens, they all fall down, they are altered. If you get obsessive, observant, if you go after details, you can find the alteration. It can be done. You may even catch the criminal.”

We have found the alteration that Mary’s crime left. Now we just have to catch the criminal.

Contact: holtkar1@msu.edu

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