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Never forgotten: Cold Case Symposium provides support for victim’s families

Every year, thousands of people are murdered or go missing in the U.S., leaving family members searching for answers. Krystal Hans, assistant professor of forensic entomology at Purdue University, and Ryan Backmann, founder and executive director of Project: Cold Case, co-hosted the second Cold Case Symposium aimed at assisting the loved ones of victims from unsolved missing person and homicide cases. 

At the heart of the symposium was a call to action for advocacy amidst uncertainty. The event, held at Purdue University, invited victim’s families, community members, law enforcement and students to share resources, ask questions and provide support and a platform to share loved one’s stories in a safe environment. Around 300 people attended the event online or in-person. 

“The feedback that we received from law enforcement, families and other organizations that attended has been overwhelmingly positive,” Hans said.  

A daughter of a missing person reached out to Hans and Backmann to share her reflections on the impactful day, commenting on how law enforcement and victim’s families are often at odds. 

“I have hope that the 'bridge the gap' movement between families and law enforcement is finally making some headway. I was so impressed with this day and grateful I was able to be a part of it all.” 

This year’s symposium featured speakers from advocacy groups, law enforcement, non-profits and forensics experts, including Brayden Johnson, a Purdue undergraduate student minoring in forensic sciences. A former student in Hans’ forensics course, which assigned students an unsolved case in Indiana to investigate, shared his investigation into the death of Kokomo homicide victim Janet Shirar, emphasizing how fellow students could help solve cases. 

The most valuable things a student can provide to any cold case investigation are a new set of eyes and a dedicated amount of time to explore the case from a different perspective,” Brayden said. “Not only can new facts and connections come to light, but just researching any cold case brings attention to it.” 

After the symposium, Krystal Hans reflected on the importance of giving families and survivors a voice. 

“The Cold Case Symposium is different than many other cold case events, which are usually restricted to law enforcement for case review purposes and don’t include families and survivors. Our symposium amplifies collective impact and provides a safe space for families to share, for organizations to distribute information and for the public to learn about ways to be impactful and support those in need.” 

To offer support to families across the nation, the symposium will move to different locations each year. In 2024, the event will be hosted in Jacksonville, Florida, the home of Project: Cold Case. 

“Our foundation in Jacksonville will open this symposium’s in-person option to our longest served families,” Backmann said. “Without sensationalism, re-victimization, or simplification of traumatic events, we will continue to encourage, educate, and embrace those wanting to share their lived experiences and those in need of our support, empathy, and resources.” 

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