Atlanta criminal justice college students who spent the past year delving into the death of Chandra Levy said they're surprised and excited about last month's break in the case.
"I was half-asleep when I got the call," said Naomi Barkley, 49, of Atlanta. "I was like, 'Are you kidding?' That was the last thing I was thinking about, that they were going to make an arrest. The rest of the day, I was in shock. I think all of us were."
Barkley, a senior at Bauder College in Atlanta, is a member of a college club in Georgia that's devoted to investigating cold cases. In 2008, the group focused on the death of Chandra Levy and the disappearance of Natalee Holloway, a high school student from Alabama who vanished during a graduation trip in Aruba. In December, the group turned over its findings to the agencies working on the cases.
A 24-year-old former Bureau of Prisons intern from Modesto, Levy was last seen April 30, 2001. Her remains were found in Washington's Rock Creek Park a year later.
On Feb. 20, Police Chief Cathy Lanier told Levy's parents in Modesto that an arrest warrant was imminent. Investigators last week flew to California. Ingmar A. Guandique, 27, an illegal immigrant from El Salvador known to be of interest to investigators in the Levy case, is in the federal penitentiary at Victorville.
The college club has 100 to 150 members on four campuses, according to director Sheryl McCollum, who started the Cold Case Investigative Research Institute in 2005. She also runs the Cold Case Crime Analysis Squad for the Pine Lake Police Department in Georgia.
'Always working on it'
McCollum's students previously have examined such cases as the 1996 shooting death of rapper Tupac Shakur and the arrest of Wayne Williams, who police identified as the key suspect in more than 20 child murders in Atlanta from 1979 to 1981.
Students meet once a month to hear from criminal justice experts and discuss theories they've formed and clues they've uncovered. McCollum said students put in extensive personal time. They come in on holidays and in their spare time to cover a wall with butcher paper, taping up articles, timelines and notes with questions about case elements that don't make sense.
"You're always working on it. It's always on your mind," said Barkley, who has been a club member since 2005. "Once you get involved in a cold case, you don't just have it for eight hours and then you put it away. It's with you until you solve it."
Barkley was in a car accident last year during which she nearly died three times, medical workers told her. Even then she was thinking about the case, she said.
"They didn't think I was going to make it. They had called my family, the whole nine yards," she said. She was in the hospital for more than a week and had to return several times for treatment. "I called Chief McCollum as soon as I could and I asked her what was going on with the case, and could I take my finals. I woke up with it on my mind, I guess."
Students said they identified with Levy, who was studying criminal justice before she disappeared. And some said they would never forget a visit from Chandra Levy's mother, Susan Levy, in early 2008.
"She told us about her daughter and showed us pictures," Barkley said. "It was very touching. It just wrapped around your heart, just to see the hurt on her face. Her daughter's gone. She just wanted answers. I saw the hurt and pain on her face and I just wanted to fix it."
Kawanda Taylor said Levy's visit allowed her to see beyond the media reports on the case.
"The news gives you a lot of different perspectives. To actually hear how it was, that was interesting to me," said Taylor, 27, of Macon, Ga.
About the same time as Levy's visit, Taylor said, her cousin was shot and killed in a domestic violence incident.
"I could understand where Chandra's mom was coming from," she said. "What happened in my family made me more eager to go and try to help figure out what happened to Chandra. It made me want to just hurry up and at least try to help her family."
The group's findings are shared only with victims' family members and law enforcement, but representatives have said their conclusions were consistent with the official investigation.
Taylor said she keeps a journal as a way of sharing the information without compromising the investigation.
"You gotta tell somebody," she said. "You can't talk, so you gotta be able to write it down."
Throughout 2008, McCollum said, the students heard from a range of experts. From a prosecutor, they learned the importance of being able to prove their theories. From a homicide detective, they learned which of their theories had legs. They heard from a stalking expert about how to tell when a case looked like a domestic dispute or an attack by a stranger, whether the crime was random or planned, organized or unorganized.
Someone donated half a lamb to the group so they could see how quickly the decomposition process happens. Students visited an area with a similar landscape to the park where Chandra Levy disappeared to see how hard it could have been to find her body.
A police chief talked to them about how to deal, especially in high-profile cases, with the media, "which can try the case for you and be critiquing you at the same time," McCollum said.
A crime scene expert talked about evidence collection, and a psychopathologist discussed the criminal mind. One man offered the group software to help with case management. And a writer visited to help the students learn about writing crime reports.
"None of these people wanted a dime," McCollum said. "They did not ask for anything."
McCollum is an instructor at Bauder, which was founded in 1964. It's part of the for-profit Kaplan Higher Education Corp. Since last year, students at three other campuses joined the research institute.
There is a tradition of college students finding justice in old cases. At Northwestern University Law School in Illinois, for instance, the Center on Wrongful Convictions has exonerated death row inmates.
Call for more groups like it
Susan Levy said Wednesday that she had been thrilled that the students were working on her daughter's case.
"The kids, they said it was life-changing for them, to have met me personally and to work with Chandra's case," Levy said. "The weird part of it is that Chandra was supposed to be on the other end, to work with crime and prevention. I never thought of her being the subject itself. That was hard."
Levy said she and other advocates would like to see more college groups taking up cold case investigations to help cash-strapped departments keep cases alive.
"One thing you worry about is if the regular police department may not have been working on it at all," she said. Levy said last year that sometimes months went by when she wouldn't hear from investigators. "Maybe the case is in the back of the file cabinet or on the back of the desk. These departments are inundated with new cases. They just don't have enough manpower."
Levy said she was in touch with club members by e-mail and phone throughout the year. They would call on memorable days, such as the anniversary of when her daughter went missing or when her body was found.
"It was a support," she said. "With cold cases, you have victims out there who have nobody working on their cases. Any bit of help you can give them goes a long way."
Bee staff writer Emilie Raguso can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2235.