Western Michigan University students help police crack 1987 murder cold case

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 home in Niles Township, Michigan, on Feb. 20, 1987, police said.

He has 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 said.

Roxanne Wood. (South Bend Police Dept.)
Roxanne Wood. (South Bend Police Dept.)

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 clearer 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.

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

“The organizational part of this was the beauty of this. I mean, this was an old case file. Things aren’t digitized,” Kuersten said. “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 [to] do their work.”

Wood was bowling with her husband the night she was killed; they drove home separately, and she got back first. When her husband got home, he found her dead with her throat slit.

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

Public DNA databases 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 detectives picked up in three days of surveillance of Gilham implicated him directly, Christensen said.

Gilham had spent time in an Indiana prison before 1987, long before law enforcement agencies 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, who was arrested Feb. 20, will formally be sentenced in April, authorities said.

There were no known ties between Gilham and Wood, 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 lawyer could not immediately be reached for comment Thursday.