Columbia College Class Takes a Stab at Mid-Missouri Cold Cases

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COLUMBIA - A "Cold Case" class at Columbia College will soon try to solve an old homicide case out of the Lake of the Ozarks.

Prof. Michael Himmel, an ex-detective who worked for the Columbia Police Department for 37 years, teaches the cold case class among others in the forensic sciences department at Columbia College. He says what makes his class special is that it's hands-on.

"A student can go Google knowledge. What the student can't do is, how do you practically apply something with that knowledge," said Himmel.

Himmel's class uses the crime lab at Columbia College to assist with working on the cold cases. With everything from blood spatter demonstrations to lasers to "bubber," a fine, snow-like material that can hold fingerprints, Himmel said his students are well equipped with technology that is the same, if not better, than what the police departments use.

Himmel first showed KOMU 8 News the special lights that police departments use to pick up on bodily fluids left behind on clothing, sheets, and other fabrics. A cross-section of a dusty pink bed sheet, which Himmel said was from a case a decade old, lay on a lab table. When Himmel put an orange filter on the camera, dimmed the lights, and shone a special blue light, a stain showed up immediately on the bedsheet - details hidden until the special tools were used.

Then, Himmel demonstrated "bubber," a fine, snow-like molding compound, originally invented as a child's toy. Himmel said the bubber is so fine it can pick up on fingerprints as soon as you touch it, and can pick up on even tiny flaws on shoe prints embedded into the material. He said the class uses the bubber with old evidence to try to find clues the original investigation couldn't find.

Himmel then showed the pig blood spatter demonstrations laid out around the lab. He said students would soon be using the models to tell minute details about which direction and height the blood fell from, as part of their final exam for one of his classes.

In addition, Himmel has a traditional classroom, where he teaches the textbook portion of the cold case classes and his other crime-related classes, attached to the other side of the crime lab.

Peter Bingham, a senior majoring in forensic science with a biology emphasis, said the class gives him experience he thinks will help him when applying for a job. He also said it's interesting to see all the elements involved in an actual case.

"It was a little bit difficult for our case in particular. A lot of reading, and just kind of,  learning how interviews are done, and reports are taken, and how well-documented everything is to show time dates, and where the process essentially starts and where it goes to the end, even if it's never completely solved," said Bingham.

Bingham also said people should know that solving cases is not like how it's portrayed on TV. It actually takes a lot longer to run tests and process evidence and clues.

"It's not to say that it's not important, or that people don't know what they're doing with their jobs. It's just that everything has its own place and time that eventually it'll be gotten to," said Bingham.