Opening a Cold Case

By Daniel Brumbach | January 18, 2018

On August 12, 1995, six-year-old Rosie Tapia was abducted from her bedroom in Salt Lake City, Utah. The next day, her body was found in the nearby Jordan River.

In the fall 2017 semester, Arcadia students in Dr. Allan Branson’s criminal justice course investigated the case, which has been labeled “cold” in Salt Lake City’s homicide records.

Here’s what they found.

There have been persons of interest, but nothing definitive: a drifter with ties to the family’s apartment complex; dozens of paroled child predators; most recently, a newscast interviewee identified by a witness. And there were theories and interviews—Did Rosie climb out the window herself, destroying the screen and Venetian blinds? Is the man who took out his trash at 3 a.m. a reliable witness, or the resident who heard a scream around 4?—that didn’t add up.

Coincidentally, the city saw a near-identical kidnapping seven years later with the abduction of Elizabeth Smart. That investigation received round-the-clock media coverage. Smart’s family appeared on national broadcasts, and impromptu coalitions formed across the country. This past November, documentaries like I Am Elizabeth Smart and Elizabeth Smart Autobiography reintroduced the case, which was solved nearly 15 years ago, through mainstream media.

Rosie, a Hispanic child abducted from a less-affluent Salt Lake City neighborhood, never made it in The New York Times. Her family wasn’t featured on Dateline. Today, Rosie’s story remains relatively unheard beyond local supporters.

Until Team Arcadia.

A standard course that stands out

In many ways the Cold Case Practicum is your standard Arcadia course: The small class, dedicated to integrative, hands-on experiences, includes a range of majors from Criminal Justice to Biology, Pre-Forensic Science to Psychology. But the nature of their work—and its significance for the victim’s family, community, and local law enforcement—stands out among Arcadia’s innovative curricula.

They began with what was known, what was not, and what we needed to know—essentially learning how to conduct a criminal investigation.

– Dr. Alan Branson

For this reason, registration wasn’t a simple click-and-add. Students were required to establish their experience in criminal justice studies, undergo a background check, and submit an essay on why they wanted to take the course. Instead of hackneyed admissions of Law & Order or CSI obsession, many expressed their desire to provide closure to the
Tapia family.

“Students also had to request letters of recommendation for this course, in part because of its very real impact on people’s lives,” said Dr. Branson, an adjunct professor of Criminal Justice. “The ability to conduct independent work while dealing with the sensitive subject matter is necessary. They are an ‘investigative team,’ much like a task force, and therefore must be resourceful, focused, and diligent in a relatively short period of time.”

When the American Investigative Society of Cold Cases (AISOCC), a nonprofit, volunteer-based organization that works with law enforcement to advance unsolved cases, connected with the Tapia family, Dr. Branson began building a workable synopsis. In many ways, the Utah case made sense for Team Arcadia. A former lieutenant and internal affairs investigator for the Philadelphia Police Department, Dr. Branson developed a distinct perspective on issues of race and crime. His interest in media representations of ethnic groups informed his research as he earned a doctorate in Criminology from the University of Leicester in 2011 and graduated with the FBI’s National Academy Session 250 in 2012.

Now, Dr. Branson studies interpersonal and political discourse that influences communications and the criminal justice system.

When investigating a case like Rosie’s, conversations about systemic injustices and diminished media coverage related to minority victims are unavoidable, making Dr. Branson the perfect point-of-contact for a team of budding investigators, despite nearly 2,150 miles between Arcadia’s campus and the crime scene.

What They Knew and Needed to Know

At first, resources were limited to what students could find online.

“They began with what was known, what was not, and what we needed to know—essentially learning how to conduct a criminal investigation,” said Dr. Branson, who assessed each student’s investigative strengths, including data analysis and interpersonal skills, before encouraging the class to explore any trail that might lead to a missing element of Rosie’s case.

Students identified overlooked witnesses, reviewed medical reports, and scoured social media to verify documents obtained from investigative agencies. After compiling news reports and preliminary suspect profiles, the class exchanged information with the Tapias’ private investigator, discussed evidence analysis with Philadelphia Crime Scene Unit personnel, and reviewed empathetic approaches to cold case investigation with a victim’s rights advocate.

“It can be frustrating and emotional, with hours of the day lost reading old documents,” said Gabby DiEmma ’19, a Pre-Forensic Science and Chemistry major from Sewell, N.J., who gathered hundreds of case files and crime reports. “The people investigating cases hold the fate of the families and loved ones of victims in their hands. It’s a powerful and sobering thought that will stick with me moving forward with my career in forensic science.”

Connecting with the Tapia family proved crucial to building their case. Details that weren’t published and witnesses who weren’t considered important in the initial police investigation formed the foundation of their research.

Fluent in Spanish, Annie Ugarte ’19—a Criminal Justice major from Wharton, N.J., who hopes to become a defense attorney through Arcadia’s Pre-Law track—took on one of the most difficult tasks: interviewing Rosie’s mother, Lewine Tapia.

“I was nervous—I knew that this was an important interview, as nobody knew the victim better [than Lewine],” said Ugarte, who believes their shared language established a sense of comfort. “I don’t want to say it was easy, but I felt like I had the knowledge and preparation for the interview. You have to be aware of how you word a question, as it can trigger something.”

Initiating such an emotional connection from across the country can be difficult. And distance presented challenges beyond phone interviews: Students had to rely on forensic photography, rather than inspect the crime scene; addresses, phone numbers, and alibis of suspects and witnesses required verification; and the Salt Lake City Police Department’s refusal to communicate with other jurisdictions—known in law enforcement as “linkage blindness”—presented investigative roadblocks.

“Law enforcement agencies are often territorial,” said Dr. Branson. “That same dynamic can exist when you become the secondary investigators of a cold case. Whenever possible, we try to work with law enforcement. Whether they want our help or not, a final report will be rendered.”

Ugarte was also tasked with analyzing a composite sketch that the Salt Lake City Police Department released in 2011. But tracking down the artist and determining who the features were based on was no simple feat without the cooperation of Utah law enforcement.

“At times, I just wanted to go there and feel what the community is like for myself,” said Ugarte. “But once everyone started bringing in significant details from their interviews, it felt like we’d totally expanded the case from when we started.”

A Family’s Frustration

“So many things have come into place because I reached out to Arcadia.”

It was Rosie’s aunt, Ramona Lopez, who contacted AISOCC after 22 years of dead ends. To the Tapias, the Salt Lake City police were negligent in their handling of Rosie’s case. The family was frustrated by law enforcement who seemed to brush off major clues from their private investigator—one, in particular, that Dr. Branson regards as a signature characteristic of the perpetrator.

“Dr. Branson has been amazing,” said Lopez. “His expertise in law enforcement, on how to think and act like a cop, has truly helped us learn what questions to ask.”

So many things have come into place because I reached out to Arcadia.

– Ramona Lopez

Through Dr. Branson’s encouragement, the Tapias enlisted the help of Salt Lake City attorney Karra Porter, who formed a coalition of lawyers, businesses, and community members dedicated to Rosie’s case. Porter also worked with the family to create, complete with a confidential tipline.

As a result, members of the community have tuned in to Lopez’s “Justice for Rosie Tapia” Facebook page. The family organized and livestreamed a press conference on November 20, during which Salt Lake City press noted the significance of Team Arcadia’s leads and questioned missteps in the initial police investigation.

“We discovered the Salt Lake City police did not properly secure the crime scene in 1995 and have continued to be apprehensive in their investigation,” said Emily Aron ’18, a double-major in Criminal Justice and Business Administration from Blue Bell, Pa. In addition to connecting with Salt Lake City news outlets, Aron conducted in-depth interviews with the company that owned Hartland Apartments at the time of Rosie’s abduction.

“Our efforts have motivated the police to take action,” added Aron. “While the insights we gained are valuable, the true value to the Tapia family is the renewal of police and public awareness about Rosie’s case.”

Team Arcadia also sent letters to the Salt Lake City Mayor’s Office and Chief of Police, prompting monthly meetings between law enforcement and Rosie’s family.

“There aren’t many cold cases with people who have money or politically positioned family members,” said Lopez. “Most cold cases involve lower income people who can’t afford to hire attorneys and don’t have the voice to keep the public’s attention. [Team Arcadia] reminded us that we need to scream, we need to yell.”

Justice for Rosie

“I’m not sure I can say anything more,” blushed Ugarte, holding back the missing pieces she and her classmates will present to Rosie’s family.

Confidentiality is key. Students can’t connect with witnesses on social media or discuss case details outside of class. Emails and interview setups go through Dr. Branson. And the final report—a summary of each student’s investigative area, findings, and analysis—will be submitted as classified evidence to the Salt Lake City police.

“In the final analysis, we are working for the victim and her surviving loved ones,” explained Dr. Branson. “While solving this crime would be a great outcome, it is more about students devoting their intellect to a human tragedy in effort to obtain justice.”

The students are shaping their case summary around a detail that surfaced as they cross-checked alibis, witness and family statements, suspect profiles, and Salt Lake City’s registered sex offender list from 1995. Lopez says that the composite sketch will be a key investigative tool moving forward. The day before Rosie was abducted, the featured suspect carried her home from Hartland’s playground, claiming she’d injured herself. Rosie insisted she wasn’t hurt.

Now, the Tapias hope to speak with anyone who was linked to Hartland Apartments in 1995. Investigators believe that there are additional persons of interest—including a witness and a possible companion of the suspect, both female—who warrant further investigation.

“This was a rare opportunity to better someone else’s life and find justice,” said June Thomquist ’18, a Global Security and Emergency Management major from Ashland, Ore., who helped identify a prime suspect by researching similar crimes in Salt Lake City. “This class helped me understand the importance of teamwork, as well as the impact you can have using the resources around you.”

This second objective of the Cold Case Practicum, to facilitate camaraderie among the students, emerged as they worked together through emotional trials and investigative obstacles.

“Being part of this team has empowered me,” said Aron. “The work done on this
case matters. Rosie matters. And this class has mattered to us as students and to the Tapia family.”

The students understood from the start that solving the case was not the ultimate goal, and did not place undue expectations on themselves. However, they realize that the work they have done could bring forth something of great value to Rosie’s family.

“Our goal was to bring a fresh perspective,” said Ugarte, “and to create a report that brings Rosie’s family closer to something that they haven’t had in 22
years: peace.”

It’s Team Arcadia’s respect for one another, for the victim, and for the family that’s meant the most to Rosie’s loved ones.

“The students listened, were very compassionate, and gave us hope when we really had nothing,” said Lopez. “Just hearing someone say that there could be more, that we should keep pursuing it with the Salt Lake City police—it’s cracked open the case, and now we can get some closure.”

The work done on this case matters. Rosie matters. And this class has mattered to us as students and to the Tapia family.

– Emily Aron ’18