Listen: Tennessee High Schoolers Solved a Nearly 40-Year-Old Serial Murder Mystery
Alex Campbell asked his students to solve a cold case involving a potential serial killer, and they delivered. Now, their work is in a podcast series.
This article has been produced in partnership with The 74 and originally ran on that site.
In the spring of 2018, Elizabethton High School teacher Alex Campbell gave his sociology class a wildly ambitious assignment: he asked them to solve a case, gone cold for decades, involving a potential serial killer.
Elizabethton is a small city in northeast Tennessee bordering the Appalachian Mountains. In the 1980s, a police task force was called to investigate the killings of several redheaded women whose bodies were found in Tennessee and neighboring states. But the crimes were never solved. Campbell thought revisiting them would make his sociology class more interesting for his students while also putting them on a mission. Elizabethton High School students had been asking for more engaging classes and were instrumental in obtaining an award from the XQ to reimagine teaching and learning.
Over the course of the semester, the student spoke with professional investigators, gathered evidence, and pieced together a nearly 40-year-old mystery to identify the killer responsible for at least six murders of redheaded white women. The Tennessee Bureau of Investigations has agreed with the students’ theory, but no charges have yet been filed against the suspect.
Now, their dogged classwork is the subject of the iHeartRadio true crime podcast series Murder 101 — and a master class in project-based learning and rethinking high school.
We spoke with Campbell about the assignment and how this type of project-based learning is key to his teaching style at Elizabethton High School. Below are excerpts from our conversation, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
XQ: What gave you the idea to ask a class of high school students to solve a cold case?
Alex Campbell: I had noticed that in my past couple of years teaching sociology, any time we talked about profiling or things like that, the students were just mesmerized. And when I found out that true crime is [one of the top podcast genres] in the world, I thought, “Hey, people are interested in it. The students are interested in it.” The No. 1 thing about being a good teacher is you’ve got to have the students interested in your subject. So I said, “Hey, let’s use it and see what happens.” And I guess they were really interested because they did a great job with it.
How did you pick the Redhead Murders?
The only cold case murder that we knew of in our county was the Cynthia Taylor case.
But when I was researching, I found out there were lots of young redheaded white women killed and dumped beside the road in Tennessee in the 1980s. And I thought, “Wow, I’ve never heard of this.” So we should work on it and see what we can do since it didn’t seem like anybody else was really doing anything with it.
You’re a teacher, not a detective. But you’ve done a lot of project-based learning at your school. How did you fold this cold case into your class?
What I usually think about is, what are the skills and the [standards] that the students would need to do a good job with this? I kind of write those up and then you see if those fit with your standards or your goals as a teacher.
So, knowing how to research and understand people’s backgrounds, how their upbringing, the five agents of socialization impact them, the person they become. I felt like those were things that we could cover in the [sociology] curriculum while helping the students figure out how to go about this project.
And I think that’s where teachers have to start. Once you say, “Where do they use this, and what are some [real-world] problems?” then you just turn your kids loose trying to apply their knowledge and help with some of these problems.
What other tips do you have for teachers who want to try partnering with folks in their community?
When it comes to teaching, l choose to do most of my work before the class. People say, “Mr. Campbell just sits around all day while different people teach class for him all week, and he did nothing.” I really think that teachers need to be really busy outside of the classroom and then do a lot less inside the classroom. Let those experts make great connections for the kids, and let the kids do the work—because whoever’s doing the most work gets the most benefit.
You put the work into the structure and create opportunities for students and then you let them or somebody else help them do the work. And then teachers find the resources they need, support the kids where they need the support, figure out where their gaps are in their learning, and fill those in.
Community partnerships, student voice, and meaningful, engaged learning are key ingredients in XQ schools and partnerships. Read more about these research-backed XQ Design Principles
The community partnerships in this class were so striking. You asked professional investigators to talk to your students. You also partnered with a true crime podcaster. How did you bring these experts into the class?
The first chapter is to admit that you don’t know anything. A lot of teachers want to pretend like we know everything, but we don’t. I think teachers do that because they think students won’t see them as the experts or they’ll lose some type of respect. But I don’t think that happens at all.
I saw somebody had a podcast about the Redhead Murders. One of the students found it. It was brand new. And I thought, “He’s got a Facebook page. I’ll just send him a Facebook message.”
And I remember he got back with me and said, “Hey, let’s talk.” I knew one FBI agent. And he just happened to be really good friends with a profiler. I just email people. I look online. I look on social media, I call local people.
Your administration was supportive of this project, what did you tell them?
I talked it over with our principal, and I just said, “These murders are over 30 years old. They’re not really close to us. One was about an hour away but a lot of them were like eight hours away. If the person is still alive, they’re going to be, like, geriatric. I don’t think they’re going to come chase the kids down.” But also, we would be talking about some things that parents may not [think would] be the normal thing their students talk about. Sex work, prostitution, murder. But I sent something home to tell the parents what we were doing. If they had any questions, they could always contact me.
What advice would you have for schools that want to do what you’re talking about?
A couple of things. We did this with some of our grant money from XQ because we felt it was important. We have a community partnership director [a new position to help all teachers at Elizabethton High School]. And so when I need five law enforcement agents, I can send them an email and say, “I need five law enforcement agents any time this week or anytime next week between one and three, would you reach out for me?” And then they do that for you because that does take some of that burden off the teacher.
Number two, I think that schools should build a network of community partners and invite people to come in, put your name on this list and tell me what your experiences or your expertise is. And then just build a master list.
In the podcast, the students talked about the victims as their “sisters” — the fact that the teens thought about the women that way was so striking. How did they settle on that language?
I think part of that was because they started seeing [the six victims] that way. The students really internalized it and started saying it back to me and calling them “our six sisters” and writing about them that way.
I think sometimes people see young people as not great communicators; that they don’t care about others. You know, they’re isolated on their social devices. But that’s not really true. If you give them a chance and a reason to care about people, it really does seem that they’re really open to doing that.
Do you think the podcast will interest more teachers in project-based learning?
Something I really like about the podcast is that KT Studios [the production team] was interested in how [I] did this in the classroom. And I think that’s important. I want people to hear that. I want teachers to say, “Maybe that’s what it looks like, or that’s how it works.”
So I hope we can help people. I wish it would start some fire that would burn down the whole establishment of, “Let’s just let kids read textbooks and memorize things.” Maybe it will.
Hear more about how Campbell’s students helped crack the case. New episodes of “Murder 101” drop on Wednesdays wherever podcasts are found. You can also access them directly through these links on Spotify, Apple, Amazon, Pandora, and iHeart Radio.