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updated: 2/16/2018 8:27 AM

How suburban college students hope to solve desert cold case

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  • Students at Elgin Community College are working to solve the mysterious disappearance and death of Ryan Singleton in 2013. It's the first case taken on by the school's new cold case investigations course.

      Students at Elgin Community College are working to solve the mysterious disappearance and death of Ryan Singleton in 2013. It's the first case taken on by the school's new cold case investigations course.
    Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • Ryan Singleton, 24, vanished in July 2013 while driving from Las Vegas to Los Angeles. The aspiring model's body was found about two months later. How he died remains shrouded in mystery.

    Ryan Singleton, 24, vanished in July 2013 while driving from Las Vegas to Los Angeles. The aspiring model's body was found about two months later. How he died remains shrouded in mystery.
    Courtesy of Iris Flowers

  • The mysterious disappearance and death of model Ryan Singleton man national headlines in 2013. Now a group of students at Elgin Community College are working to solve the cold case.

    The mysterious disappearance and death of model Ryan Singleton man national headlines in 2013. Now a group of students at Elgin Community College are working to solve the cold case.

  • The mysterious disappearance and death of model Ryan Singleton man national headlines in 2013. Now a group of students at Elgin Community College are working to solve the cold case.

    The mysterious disappearance and death of model Ryan Singleton man national headlines in 2013. Now a group of students at Elgin Community College are working to solve the cold case.

  • The mysterious disappearance and death of model Ryan Singleton man national headlines in 2013. Now a group of students at Elgin Community College are working to solve the cold case.

    The mysterious disappearance and death of model Ryan Singleton man national headlines in 2013. Now a group of students at Elgin Community College are working to solve the cold case.

 

Aspiring model Ryan Singleton vanished in July 2013 while driving through California's Mojave Desert on a trip from Las Vegas to Los Angeles. When joggers found the 24-year-old Atlanta man's body on an unpaved road two months later, several of his organs were missing, including his liver, eyes and heart, and some of his ribs.

Investigators ruled his cause of death "undetermined," while rumors of murder and organ harvesting circulated online. Almost five years later, what happened to Singleton remains shrouded in mystery.

A group of 10 college students and their instructor in a suburban classroom more than 1,800 miles away are out to change that.

Singleton's death is the focus of Elgin Community College's inaugural cold case investigations course, launched this semester in partnership with the Cold Case Investigative Research Institute.

Elgin Community College instructor Jemel Townsend works with student Derrick Henning, 26, of Hampshire during a session of the college's new cold case investigations course. The students are trying to solve the mystery behind the 2013 disappearance and death of an aspiring model in the California desert.
  Elgin Community College instructor Jemel Townsend works with student Derrick Henning, 26, of Hampshire during a session of the college's new cold case investigations course. The students are trying to solve the mystery behind the 2013 disappearance and death of an aspiring model in the California desert. - Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

Students in the class, all studying criminal justice, work as real investigators -- interviewing witnesses, reviewing police reports, examining evidence and digging for clues that might reveal how Singleton died.

"It's invaluable experience," instructor Jemel Townsend said. "It's beyond just law enforcement theory. It's hand-on investigative experience."

Townsend, who worked in law enforcement before coming to ECC as its director of digital technologies, brought the partnership with the Atlanta-based investigative institute to Elgin. ECC is now among 27 colleges and universities across the country with students trying to solve cold cases through the institute.

Ryan Singleton, 24, vanished in July 2013 while driving from Las Vegas to Los Angeles. The aspiring model's body was found about two months later. How he died remains shrouded in mystery.
Ryan Singleton, 24, vanished in July 2013 while driving from Las Vegas to Los Angeles. The aspiring model's body was found about two months later. How he died remains shrouded in mystery. - Courtesy of Iris Flowers

The investigative institute assigned Singleton's case to ECC after his mother went to it seeking help, Townsend said.

Students in the class are split into groups, each with different tasks. Some pore over media reports about Singleton's disappearance and death in search of information that might have slipped through the cracks. Others track down and interview witnesses and law enforcement officials who investigated the case. Two students guide the process as lead investigators.

During class Wednesday, students were busy laying out a timeline of Singleton's life before he vanished. Some worked on a cork board, using string to connect a photo of Singleton with those of others in his life when he disappeared. One student was out of class conducting a phone interview with a law enforcement investigator in San Diego.

Work on the case extends beyond class time. Students often meet outside the classroom or online to discuss their findings.

"It's unlike any other class I've taken," said Ricky Delapena, a 24-year-old combat veteran from Elgin who hopes to become a federal air marshal. "I just want to help in any way that I can. I think that's why we're all here."

Instructor Jemel Townsend works with Elgin Community College students taking the school's new cold case investigations class. "This isn't a class just for a grade," Townsend said. "We're trying to solve a case and bring closure to a grieving mother."
  Instructor Jemel Townsend works with Elgin Community College students taking the school's new cold case investigations class. "This isn't a class just for a grade," Townsend said. "We're trying to solve a case and bring closure to a grieving mother." - Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

Townsend said the class has made some progress since the course began Jan. 12. If the case isn't solved when the semester ends, students will compile a transfer report so the next class can pick up where they left off. As a repeatable elective course at ECC, students in the inaugural class can take it again when it resumes next semester, Townsend said.

Among those taking a keen interest in the class' progress is Singleton's mother, Iris Flowers. She's in frequent contact with the students and even called Wednesday to wish them a happy Valentine's Day.

"This isn't a class just for a grade," Townsend said. "We're trying to solve a case and bring closure to a grieving mother."

Anyone with information about the case can call the Cold Case Investigative Research Institute-ECC Unit Tip Line at (740) 936-3050.

DuPage killer denied

Isaias Beltran
Isaias Beltran

An admitted gang member convicted in the senseless and random killing of a Glendale Heights man out walking his dog has lost another bid for a new trial.

A state appeals court this month upheld a DuPage County judge's decision to deny Isaias Beltran another trial on claims that new evidence could exonerate him.

That new evidence was an affidavit from Beltran's brother, Israel, that blamed another man for the murder of Corey Dale Krueger. The 35-year-old father of two was gunned down while walking his dog near his house in the early morning hours of Dec. 19, 2007.

Beltran's undoing came when his brother declined to back up his affidavit by testifying about his claims in front of a judge. That, the appellate court noted in its unanimous ruling, would have exposed Israel Beltran to cross-examination by a county prosecutor.

"Had he been subject to cross-examination, Israel might have had to explain why he made a statement to the police immediately after the shooting that contradicted what he said in his affidavit," Justice Kathryn E. Zenoff wrote. "He might also have been asked to explain why he remained silent while his brother was on trial for murder when he had evidence that might exonerate him. These are credibility questions that are not answered by an affidavit alone."

Beltran, now 29, is serving his time at the maximum-security Menard Correctional Center downstate. His projected parole date is December 2082 -- when he'd be 93 years old.

Crime (fighting) pays

Bad guys convicted in federal court lost more than just their freedom last year.

According to the U.S. attorney's office for the Northern District of Illinois, federal prosecutors here collected nearly $75 million in criminal, civil and asset forfeiture actions in fiscal year 2017. The figure includes $234,308 from the prosecution of Patty and Mario Cordoba, a Crystal Lake couple convicted of tax fraud.

Nationally, the Department of Justice collected more than $15 billion through civil and criminal actions.

DNA dollars

The DuPage County Forensic Science Center has again received a federal grant to help it reduce its DNA testing backlog.

The center plans to use the $238,972 from the National Institute of Justice to pay overtime when its caseload mushrooms or when staffing is down. The money also will help them purchase supplies faster, buy another DNA extraction robot, and contract a quality-control worker.

Happy anniversary

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the first 911 call in American history. It was made Feb. 16, 1968, in Haleyville, Alabama by Alabama state Sen. Rankin Fite.

• Got a tip? Send an email to copsandcrime@dailyherald.com or call (847) 427-4483.

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