Detectives reopen 1988 cold case with help of Olivet College students

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HOMER TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — Authorities in Calhoun County have reopened a cold case after criminal justice students at Olivet College found potential leads.

On Sept. 25, 1988, Calhoun County sheriff’s deputies found a body on 29 Mile Road near V Drive in Homer Township, southeast of Battle Creek. In the early 2000s, the body was identified as that of James William Burton. The case has since gone cold.

An undated courtesy photo of James William Burton. (Calhoun County Sheriff’s Office)

“When a case goes cold, it goes on a shelf and that’s where we come in,” Phil Reed, associate professor of criminal justice at Olivet College, said.

Students in Olivet College’s criminal justice program reviewed the cold case as part of a class this year. They were able to identify potential leads, which prompted the sheriff’s office to revisit the case.

“It took us about two and a half months to realize that there was something here,” Reed said. “Especially when we learned of a potential witness that had not been interviewed. That was key to us.”

Before becoming a professor, Reed was the commander of investigations with the Battle Creek Police Department. He draws on his experience in the field when guiding his students through cold case investigations.

“What stands out here? Who should we interview here? What did you learn while looking at this case?” Reed listed the types of questions he asks his students.

The class of 10 students was thrilled to learn the worked helped reopen the case.

“Once Detective Pignataro told us that he was actually going to take it and pursue it, that was such an exciting day,” junior Griffon Rice said.

The students began reviewing the case last spring.

“We have all read through the cases, word for word,” senior Anna Baird said.

After examining the physical evidence, the students identified what items could be retested using forensic technology that wasn’t available at the time of the murder. They also took to social media.

“We were able to do a lot of digging through Facebook,” junior Paul Muir said.

The students’ tech savvy was a huge asset, according to Reed.

“When we were looking for this person that the sheriff department hasn’t been able to find, I had a student in class that found him within 20 minutes,” Reed said.

Detective Dave Homminga with the Calhoun County Sheriff’s Office said there’s few details the department can release about the ongoing investigation. Detectives are looking for anyone with information about Burton, who would have been in southwest Michigan on or before September 1988.

Anyone with information about the case is asked to call Detective Jon Pignataro and Detective Homminga at 269.781.0880.

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