On the night of Christmas Eve in 2005, the horrific murder of an elderly woman rocked a small Pennsylvania community.
Anna Rocknick, a widowed 94-year-old grandmother known for her unwavering faith and community service, was beaten to death in her home. She managed to call 9-1-1 before she succumbed to her injuries – and told police it was ‘the devil’ who got her.
Investigators identified a few suspects, but no arrests were made. For a decade, the case was cold – that is, until a group of college students decided to investigate.
They’re the Students Conquering Cold Cases (SCCC) at the University of Pittsburgh. They’re the modern day Nancy Drews and Hardy Boys – except that they’re criminal justice and political science majors who have 21st century tools at their disposal, as well as a good relationship with local law enforcement which means they’re able to access confidential information so they can work on some of the state’s unsolved cases.
The group hopes not only to gain real-world experience for their futures – but that in the process, they can bring the victims’ families justice.
The Students Conquering Cold Cases club at the University of Pittsburgh is comprised of criminal justice and political science majors who work alongside law enforcement to investigate cold cases in Pennsylvania
The group was established in 2015 and has since become competitive to enter at the University. They currently have 24 members including Eric Spiker, right, who is listening to a lecture from retired detective William Weber discussing a case
The club was founded by Nicole Coons, a 23-year-old now law student at the University of Pittsburgh when she was in her junior year of undergraduate school with her friend Hannah Eisenhart.
The idea was spawned from a tragic incident in Nicole’s hometown of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where a girl then her age, 21-year-old Kortne Stouffer, went missing in 2015. She has yet to be found and is presumed dead.
‘Police officers and detectives are usually older, so I thought it would be good to have the perspective of someone younger looking at the case,’ Nicole told DailyMail.com.
With the help of her late professor and adviser Ron Freeman, former Chief of Homicide in Pittsburgh, she launched the SCCC and the group took on their very first case: the disappearance of Kortne Stouffer. They spent their first year conducting interviews and research into Kortne’s life, and made headway on the case – but eventually hit a snag.
Nicole Coons, 23, founded the SCCC during her junior year at the University of Pittsburgh. She’s now a law student with hopes to become a US Attorney
Nicole got the idea to start a group of young professionals researching cases after a woman her age at the time, 21-year-old Kortne Stouffer, went missing in 2015 and has never been found
They soon learned that critical information is difficult to come by in open cases. Police didn’t want to reveal anything that might compromise their official investigation – so there was only so much Nicole and her fellow students could do. Even though they had Freeman on their side, a revered and well-respected figure in the law enforcement community who was advocating for their trustworthiness, detectives couldn’t share much of their findings with the SCCC.
It was then that they decided to turn their attention to cold cases.
When it comes to cases that aren’t actively being investigated, Nicole said, they were able to form trusting relationships with law enforcement officers, who had the group sign confidentiality waivers. They were then privy to the majority of information the investigators themselves had.
With 24 members now in 2018, the club has entered its third year, and the students have become established researchers and are well-respected among local detectives and police. They have honed in on two cold cases that remain unsolved in the Pittsburgh area – both murders of elderly women.
They chose local cases to ensure that they could be in closer contact with detectives, family members of victims, and people of interest.
The students have visited Anna Rocknick’s Ambridge, Pennsylvania home to get an idea of the crime scene. Someone else lives there now, the tragedy of Rocnick’s death now more than 12 years in the past.
‘I don’t think she wants to deal with what happened in the house,’ Eric Spiker, the current President of the SCCC told DailyMail.com.
One of the main cases the SCCC is focusing on is the death of Anna Rocknick, a 94-year-old grandmother who was killed on Christmas Eve in 2005
The students have visited Anna Rocknick’s Ambridge, Pennsylvania home to get an idea of the crime scene
She managed to call 9-1-1 before she succumbed to her injuries – and told police it was ‘the devil’ who got her
He’s the one who sought out the case for his team to take on, working as case manager for the club before becoming its President. Their organized hierarchy of leadership includes elected officials as the President, Vice President, Communications Manager, Case Manager, Finance Manager and Vice President of External Affairs.
Their research methods are grassroots – they use mostly publicly available information that can be found through a simple Google search or by reviewing old files. However, with a fresh set of eyes, they’ve been able to make serious headway on several cases.
Emma Stewart, the VP of Communications for the club, said they spend a lot of time combing through old paperwork, looking for something that may have been tucked away that could crack the case.
‘Things could’ve been overlooked, so we’re trying to freshen up the tracks and hopefully dig up new leads and contacting people to see if they can remember something they didn’t remember before or if we can see something that someone else didn’t see because we have a hindsight bias,’ she said.
Social media has also played a big role in their ability to identify and track new subjects. In one case, they’ve been able to monitor the movements of one person of interest as he moved to several different states over the last year.
Aside from the Rocknick case, the group has also taken on the mysterious murder of Stephanie Coyle, a 74-year-old woman who was killed in her Arnold, Pennsylvania garage apartment in 1993.
She was raped, her throat had been slit, she was stabbed a dozen times, a design was carved in her back and her nude body was molested after she died.
Aside from the Rocknick case, the group has also taken on the mysterious murder of Stephanie Coyle, a 74-year-old woman who was killed in her Arnold, Pennsylvania garage apartment in 1993. Her son Dan, who once issued a $90,000 reward for any information leading to the arrest of her killer, is seen hammering a notice of the reward to a telephone pole
Twenty years after her murder, in 2013, her son Dan posted a reward for $90,000 for any person with information leading to the arrest of his mother’s killer. Dan works closely with the SCCC
ANNA ROCKNICK, 94
- Anna ‘Annie’ Rocknick was a 94-year-old grandmother living in Harmony Township, Pennsylvania
- She was bludgeoned to death on Christmas Eve of 2005
- She was able to call 9-1-1 in the moments before her death
- Her description of her killer was that he was a white male with a hoodie on tightly around his face
- Investigators suspect that he was a drug addict looking for cash, because her drawers had been rummaged through
- No arrests were ever made
STEPHANIE COYLE, 74
- Stephanie Coyle, aged 74, was killed on July 16, 1993 in her home of Arnold, Pennsylvania
- She was raped, her throat had been slit, she was stabbed a dozen times, a design was carved in her back and her nude body was molested
- The brutal murder rattled the small community
- Her son Dan has worked tirelessly to find her killer, and he has provided information to the SCCC
- In 2013, the Coyle family issued a $90,000 reward for information, but it was never claimed
So not to confound their own ideas about the case with any pre-existing notions, the SCCC brought in experts. A forensic pathologist who conducted the autopsy on Coyle has come to a club meeting and presented his findings, as well as a FBI profiler.
Stephanie Coyle’s family are among the many who refuse to give up seeking justice for their relatives’ untimely death. Twenty years after her murder, in 2013, her son Dan posted a reward for $90,000 for any person with information leading to the arrest of his mother’s killer. Still, the crime remains unsolved.
Working with Dan, Nicole says, has been one of the most challenging yet fulfilling aspects of the undertaking.
‘He feels like there’s hope,’ Nicole said. ‘It’s the hardest part but also the most rewarding part of this organization. You see how much these families have gone through and how much this tragedy has torn apart their lives to a certain extent. But it’s also rewarding because you see how much they care, and how much they really truly appreciate feeling like someone is looking at their case.’
Ron Freeman, the former Pittsburgh Chief of Homicide, who passed away two days after Christmas of 2017, was the students long-time adviser. Club members say he taught them everything, and was a driving force in the group being taken seriously among law enforcement
Dealing with such horrific realities might seem like too much for a group of students in their twenties to handle – but the SCCC have established a reputation for professionalism.
Part of this, Nicole says, is credited to their mentor Ron Freeman, who passed away a few weeks ago.
A seasoned detective turned professor, Freeman taught the students everything they needed to know about working in law enforcement, from crime scene investigation to interview tactics.
‘Ron was such an excellent detective. One of the best in Pittsburgh,’ Nicole said.
‘He had such a special way of communicating with people. He’s very trustworthy, people trust him, so taking those attributes when you’re talking to people, and empathizing with them,’ she continued.
Eric Spiker agreed – Ron was the driving force of the club, especially when it came to interviewing victims and suspects.
‘He said – “they’re human beings like you are. Talk to them. Don’t be afraid to learn from them”.’
Ron passed away at the age of 81 two days after Christmas, devastating the SCCC, and the Pittsburgh community who trusted him for decades to keep the streets safe. A fellow officer described him in his obituary as ‘a living legend’.
His legend lives on, however, through his family and through the students he taught in the club he held so dear.
It was difficult at first, Nicole said, to establish a relationship of trust and mutual respect with local law enforcement, some of whom viewed them as kids trying to meddle in their own investigations.
That was until they mentioned they were students of Ron Freeman. His name carried a lot of clout, and his recommendations weren’t taken lightly.
Indeed, the groups commitment to their confidentiality agreements and law enforcement protocol is evident by the fact that they revealed no information that isn’t public record about their cases to DailyMail.com.
Nicole said: ‘I was very nervous and hesitant at first to get involved with law enforcement because we didn’t want to step on any toes or make it seem like “we know better than you” or “we can solve a case you couldn’t” – because we’re so young.
‘But we’ve been seen as such a positive from law enforcement and detectives – all the detectives we’ve worked with genuinely want these cases solved and don’t care how they get solved.’
The club’s current President, senior Eric Spiker, previously served as case manager and was instrumental in finding the cases the club is investigating
Dealing with such horrific realities might seem like too much for a group of students in their twenties to handle – but the SCCC have established a reputation of professionalism
The young adults have built up a relationship of mutual respect with local law enforcement, who regularly approach them with cases. Emma Stewart, right, is the Vice President of communications for the club, and it is her primary job to converse with police
This echoes the sentiments of Detective Timmie Parker, the main law enforcement agent working with the group on the Anna Rocknick case.
The 28-year veteran police officer with the District Attorney’s office said he speaks almost daily with Emma and the rest of the SCCC group, and they’re constantly exhausting every possible scenario for the cases they’ve taken on.
Detective Patrick said his Chief recently discussed giving the students more cold cases to take on, to which he responded ‘you don’t even have to ask’.
‘They’re a great bunch,’ he told DailyMail.com. ‘Very energetic, they use every resource available at their disposal – definitely a bunch of go-getters and have helped them move some cases forward. They’ve reached a point where I’m comfortable with recommending them to any and all law enforcement agencies.’
The Pittsburgh students have come to visit Detective Patrick at the 9-1-1 center, and he often comes to their meetings in Lawrence Hall at the University. Soon, he says, they are working to get permission to show the group the physical evidence from the Rocknick case.
Detective Patrick, 47, said of 22-year-old Emma Stewart: ‘She’s outstanding.’
Detective Timmie Patrick, 47, is a US Gulf War veteran and a member of law enforcement with the District Attorneys office. He works with the SCCC on the Anna Rocknick case, and described the group as ‘go-getters’
Detective Timmie Patrick said of the group: ‘I’ll tell you this – I’m former military, and I’d have them in my foxhole anytime’
The respect is mutual – Emma said that her primary role with the club is communication with law enforcement officers, and forging relationships founded on trust.
‘We’re obviously serious about it, we’re not just a club like “oh this is cool, criminal minds!” – we actually are very driven and want to bring peace to the community and bring peace to the victim and the victim’s family,’ she said.
Their passion is evident to Detective Patrick, and the other officers who collaborate with the SCCC.
Patrick says that many of the students remind him of himself when he first started on the force nearly three decades ago.
‘To see the look in their eyes is the same look I have when I’m on the scene,’ he said. ‘You just have that energetic look about yourself because you know you want to do the best job possible – and that’s what we get from this group.’
He continued: ‘I’ll tell you this – I’m former military, and I’d have them in my foxhole anytime.’