On March of 1998, I was a senior at Saratoga Springs High School, counting down the months until graduation. That’s around the time the news broke about the disappearance of fellow Saratogian Suzanne Lyall. On the night of March 2, Lyall, who was a student at SUNY Albany and just a year older than me, left her job at Crossgates Mall, hopped on a CDTA bus and was never seen or heard from again.
Sadly, more than two decades later, Lyall still hasn’t been found, and it has become infinitesimally more difficult to find her given the annual statistics: a staggering 600,000-plus people go missing every year in the US. Though many are located right away, local investigators don’t have the time, manpower or resources to follow up on every single case. Add in 250,000 unsolved murders, a number that increases by 6,000 every year, and you have countless lifetime’s worth of unsolved mysteries.
But thanks to the three-year-old Cold Case Analysis Center at The College of Saint Rose in Albany—the only one of its kind in New York State and one of just six nationally—Lyall’s and other area cold cases have been given new hope of being solved.
The center is the brainchild of Dr. Christina Lane, a criminal behavior and criminology professor at Saint Rose, who serves as its director; and Dr. Christopher Kunkle, a veteran forensic psychologist and criminal investigation consultant, now based in South Carolina, who serves as an advisor. “The center gives students a learning platform outside of the classroom, where they can work on real, live cases and [gain] experience working side by side with police agencies,” says Dr. Kunkle. In some instances, the program can reap major rewards, as was the case with the unsolved mystery of Catherine Blackburn, a 50-year-old Albany woman who was found murdered, sexually assaulted and mutilated in 1964. “We identified evidence in that case that we used new technology on to extract DNA from,” says Dr. Kunkle. The team was then able to create two new DNA profiles that have since been uploaded to CODIS (or the Combined DNA Index System), a national database. If either ever gets a hit, it could blow the case wide open.
Of course, the program is not a total free-for-all: They’re being supervised and guided by Dr. Lane. But it isn’t anything like normal coursework. “It’s not a class, there’s no textbook; students’ expectations are ever-changing to what’s needed,” she says. “It’s like, now it’s time for you to take everything you’ve learned in criminal justice and forensic science and apply it. You’re working here; you’re not a student.”
Now, if you’ve ever binge-watched CSI, you know that most of the fictional cases get solved by the end of the show. Unfortunately, that’s not how reality works. “Many people ask me, ‘Well, have you solved a case yet?’ and I’m like, ‘That’s not the purpose [of the program],’” says Dr. Lane. “We can’t dream up how to solve a case like Sherlock Holmes. The main thing is for students to feel useful in the community and feel like they can make a difference.”