Professor Dana Kollmann leads TU students on a forensic field study to help with a 39-year-old cold case in Kentucky
In 1980, 17-year-old Randy Sellers disappeared just minutes from his house in Kenton County, Kentucky. A true cold case, a body hasn’t been found and his family is still searching for answers.
In 1994, a convicted serial killer admitted to the murder and drew a map to direct the police to Sellers’ remains. When they arrived at the supposed burial site, the police found nothing.
It would take another three decades for Kenton County police to realize they might have misinterpreted the hand-drawn map. With the serial killer now deceased, the investigators had to do their best to recreate the burial site.
A few weeks ago, Kenton County police searched the burial site again, this time with help from Towson University criminal justice students. Led by clinical associate professor Dana Kollmann, TU students traveled to Kincaid Lake Park in Falmouth, Kentucky, to search for evidence that Sellers’ body was buried there.
The 37-member team from Towson University were invited because of Kollmann’s reputation for working on cold cases, as well as her relationship with the canine forensics team being used in the case.
Kenton County Police detective Brian Jones admits his team doesn’t do this type of work that often. So, after hearing about Kollmann’s reputation in the field of forensic science, he was happy to let her take the lead on the search.
“She has such an impressive resume,” Jones says. “She’s really been a rock as far as organizing resources and knowing what we actually need to do.
He’s also been impressed with the students’ enthusiasm for working at the site and helping the Sellers family find some sort of closure. The students were not getting college credit; many were working for the real-life, in-the-field experience.
Field exercises like the one in Kentucky are possible thanks to priority investment funding through Towson University’s BTU—Partnerships at Work for Greater Baltimore presidential priority. BTU priority investments allow the university to provide funds over a 1 to 3-year period, focused on scaling, sustaining, aligning and institutionalizing leading TU community engagement partnerships and projects.
Kollmann’s project, “Advanced Forensic Field Investigations,” was one of the inaugural emerging investment projects for the BTU presidential priority. Through the funding, Kollmann has continued to establish Towson University in the forensic science community. They’ve also been able to use investment support to include the integration of drone and ground penetrating radar technologies.
“The search in Kentucky was the outcome of Dr. Kollmann’s stellar reputation in the forensic investigation community and the strong support she receives as a BTU faculty project lead at Towson University,” says Matt Durington, director, Community Engagement and Partnerships.
And after meeting with the Sellers family, they wanted to find anything that would help give them peace of mind. 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.
“They’re out here because they want to be here; they want to find Randy Sellers,” Kollmann told WCPO, Cincinnati’s ABC affiliate. “It’s easy to become robotic in the field and to emotionally remove yourself. I think you have that connection that we’re looking for people.”
Noelle Neff, one of the TU students who joined the search, has been on five different forensics trips with Kollmann. The junior biology major from Baltimore is also the vice president of TU’s Forensic Science Student Organization.
When she came to TU, Neff never expected to have these types of opportunities. She now feels prepared for her future, especially when she has found things in past searches — including a tooth and vertebrae.
“They want this type of work,” Neff says of potential employers. “They want us to actually have experience. I can say I know how to do anthropological work, I’ve done actual crime scene work, I can photograph, I can claim all these types of things that I’ve actually had hands-on experience doing.
“It’s just amazing and potential employers will eat that up.”
One alumnus who can vouch for that is Jake Arnold ’18. The Manchester, Maryland, native graduated with a bachelor’s degree in forensic chemistry and now works as a forensic service technician for the Virginia Beach Police Department.
During his time at TU, Arnold took several trips with Kollmann and volunteered to come back and join this one. He credits both his work with Kollmann and being part of the Forensic Science Student Organization with having led him to his current position.
“That was my biggest thing on my resume, that I've worked seven cases in the field looking for people that are missing,” Arnold says. “I work with students from other schools, and they didn’t have the stuff like this. They don’t get this type of field experience that students at Towson University get.”
According to Durington, Kollmann’s work epitomizes the type of work supported through the BTU presidential priority. It has demonstrated student impact through experiential learning opportunities, solid and mutual collaboration with an external partner and research outcomes for TU faculty members.
One student impacted by it was junior sociology and anthropology major Kelly Isky. When the Mount Laurel, New Jersey native learned about such opportunities, she jumped at the chance to join Kollmann on one of her forensic trips.
“Being out in the field is enriching my education so much more than a textbook possibly could,” Isky says. “Being able to not only see what you're learning, but also being able to touch it, being able to just see it all around you. I find I retain it a lot better than anything I could learn in a classroom.”
This story is one of several related to President Kim Schatzel’s priorities for Towson University: TU Matters to Maryland, BTU-Partnerships at Work for Greater Baltimore.