Western Michigan University students help police crack 1987 murder cold case

A team of Western Michigan University students helped police crack a murder cold case that went unsolved for 35 years — and helped bring a woman’s killer to justice, authorities said Thursday.

Patrick Wayne Gilham, 67, has pleaded no contest to the second-degree murder of Roxanne Leigh Wood, 30, in her Niles Township, Michigan, home on Feb. 20, 1987, police said.

He’s agreed to be sentenced to at least 23 years in prison, officials said.

“You can imagine, after that long, wanting something to be solved — it was a relief,” Michigan State Police Detective First Lt. Charles Christensen told NBC News.

Police paired up with Western Michigan University’s Cold Case Program and the students played a key organizational role in cataloging a 3,000-page case file and thinking out loud alongside investigators, officials said.

“The more eyes the better,” Christensen said. “We had all our numbers in there, the names. It was important. Obviously this guy pled, but it really comes into play coming in court. Now you have this whole file categorized. “

The path leading to Gilham’s arrest was much more clear with police pressing computer buttons rather than digging through boxes and boxes of yellowing paper.

“This program provided organizational and informational support,” state police said in a statement.

Roxanne Wood.South Bend Police Dept.

WMU sociology professor and Cold Case Program director Ashlyn Kuersten estimated that doctoral students Ashley Chlebek and Carl Huber logged about 1,200 hours of work over eight months on Wood’s case.

“The organizational part of this was the beauty of this. I mean this was an old case file, things aren’t digitized,” said Kuersten. “So we made it all digitized and they searched license plate numbers, by someone’s name, variation on a town’s name, a comment someone made. It just made it easier for the police could do their work.”

Wood was bowling with her husband the night she was killed, but they drove home separately with the wife getting back first. When Wood’s husband got home, he found her dead with her throat slit.

The killer sexually assaulted Woods and his DNA was left at the crime scene.

DNA public data bases eventually led to Gilham’s family tree and three brothers as the final suspects, Berrien County Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Jerry Vigansky said.

Finally, a discarded cigarette picked up by detectives during a three-day-long surveillance of Gilham directly implicated him, according to Christensen.

Gilham had spent time in an Indiana prison before 1987, long before law enforcement began swabbing DNA samples from some inmates.

“Even with the DNA and how long it’s been in existence, his DNA was not on record anywhere,” Vigansky said.

Gilham was arrested on Feb. 20 and he’ll be formerly sentenced in April, authorities said.

There were no known ties between Gilham and the victim, other than that he lived on the same South Bend street as Wood’s mother, police said.

“I’m thinking he was at that bowling alley that night and followed her from there,” Christensen said. “He was a predator.”

Gilham’s defense lawyer could not be immediately reached for comment on Thursday.