Embry-Riddle students turn up heat on Cottonwood cold case
$350,000 still missing from 2016 Bank of America burglary
Sixteen Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University students spent this past semester combing through facts and evidence from the country’s biggest and as yet unsolved bank burglary and came up with some “new theories.”
That’s about all they could say of their conclusions during TRAU’s Senior Capstone Projects Symposium presentation April 26 about their work on the 2016 Bank of America burglary in Cottonwood. However, the Federal Bureau of Investigations, having previously backed off in its efforts, are interested again, Cottonwood police indicated.
The students, all enrolled in the College of Security and Intelligence, had access to the interview videos, documents, police reports (some redacted) and evidence collected in the burglary. While they provided a new view of the facts, and new theories about the unsolved case, they would not provide specific information.
In December, ERAU Assistant Professor Steve Hooper contacted nearby law enforcement agencies for opportunities for students to experience real world tangible experience into investigation and security work. Cottonwood Police Department expressed an interest in having another set of eyes look at the cold case burglary that detectives believe was an inside job.
Students first had to undergo a background check and sign confidentiality papers, said ERAU senior Jarod Blieweiss, one of three students giving the presentation. They outlined how their coursework dovetailed with hands-on experiences.
The class on Security Fundamentals provided background on how to look at the bank building’s security, camera and sensor locations, and identify blind spots that offered suspects an opportunity to access the interior.
Forensics gave insight into the collection of evidence, including analysis of fingerprints, and a crime scene simulation. Government and Corporate Security Management class dealt with a review of insider threats and management decisions that may have created vulnerabilities in security procedures.
Students conducted real interviews with probation volunteers in Prescott to practice skills learned in Interviewing Tactics. When they reviewed the Cottonwood PD’s interviews of suspects, they picked out what worked and didn’t work, and identified who might be re-interviewed.
The class on Deceptions explored techniques used in intelligence and law enforcement agencies on how to detect deception. They looked for what techniques worked or didn’t work on different suspects, and who showed signs of stress.
Learning about psychology in the Personality and Profiling class helped students understand who might be more likely to commit the burglary, the individuals’ motivations, and how different interactions between the bank’s employees might affect the case.
“What the teams learned was that investigative work is not linear,” said student presenter Mark DeHoff. “It is important to understand the facts first, then theorize. If you theorize first, it impacts the fact-gathering process.”
ERAU junior Grace Knopp, who will study Arabic in Morocco this summer with a goal of future diplomatic security work with the State Department, said her team of four looked at one of the suspects – they did not know the person’s last name –watched the interview tapes, and read transcriptions.
“We looked at the person’s connections and what others at the bank said about her,” Knopp said. Then the class came up with a theory and formulated a hypothesis.
Cottonwood PD Officer Richard Hicks said he was on duty the night of the burglary and responded to the first alarm at 1 a.m. A second alarm went off at 4 a.m. Both times, officers checked the perimeter and saw no signs of forced entry and nothing suspicious.
Jody Makuch, Support Services commander with the Cottonwood PD, called this case unique and very well thought out. “We don’t like to be outwitted,” he said, adding that the bank’s security “got a little relaxed.”
Kathy Spacone, Bank of America public information officer for the Western region, called the students’ insights very valuable, and indicated the investigation is still ongoing.
Even if the students’ conclusions lead to an arrest and conviction of a suspect or suspects, they unfortunately are not eligible for the $40,000 reward, Knopp said.
Follow Sue Tone on Twitter @ToneNotes. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.