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University of La Verne television news students get out of the studio to work an actual murder case investigation re-opened thanks to new evidence.
In 1985, the body of a 23-year-old aspiring model and actress was discovered in the East Fork of the San Gabriel Valley River, more than a month after her disappearance. She had been murdered in cold blood, and her suspected killer was set free.
Today, more than a quarter century later, Stafford Spicer, the original suspect, is in police custody and is awaiting trial for murder at Pomona Superior Court this September thanks to new DNA evidence linking him.
What sounds like an episode of 48 Hours Mystery, is actually a TV news story covered by four students from the TV News Production class in the Communications Department at the University of La Verne.
“I encourage them to be hungry and curious and tell them to never stop asking questions,” said adjunct professor, Monica Gutierrez, who, for the past four years, has immersed her students in a variety of TV show formats, equipping them with the tools they need to succeed.
Recent graduates Jazmin Barragan and Daniella Villegas and seniors Tiffany Spears and Laura Acevedo were the four lucky students last spring to be tasked with researching local cold cases – solved and unsolved – and producing a TV news spot.
The story of Joanne Jones was one of three cold cases the students investigated. Gutierrez and her students were fascinated that not only was this particular cold case local and timely, no other recent in-depth coverage had been done by local TV media.
After researching and reviewing court documents about the once-unsolved murder, the students wanted to learn more about how DNA and new biological evidence led to the arrest of Spicer in March 2011 –26 years after the alleged crime.
Like all seasoned reporters, the students decided they needed to get down to the source. They packed their camera equipment and traveled to a remote area in Azusa Canyon to meet up with a homicide detective, Lieutenant David Coleman of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, at the location the body was discovered in 1985.
From their investigation, the students knew the background. Jones, a Covina resident, was leaving her boyfriend’s apartment in Long Beach on April 29, 1985, to go to work. She would never make it. After she had been missing for more than a month, hikers discovered her naked body, with stab wounds, in a ditch near the San Gabriel Valley River.
A break in the case came a few days after her disappearance, when Jones’ boyfriend noticed her car being driven by Spicer. Spicer was arrested in connection with the murder, but was released due to lack of evidence, even though blood was found in the trunk of the car.
But the question remained: Why the second arrest of Spicer 26 years later?
This was the meat of the story the La Verne students set out to capture during their on-camera interview with Lieutenant Coleman. With the camera rolling and their questions ready to be asked, the interview began.
“Why was the case reopened?”
“What new DNA evidence led you to Spicer?”
“Why would someone pick a place like this to hide a body?”
“When Spicer was arrested and there wasn’t sufficient evidence, he was released. What happened with the investigation?”
“How did you find Spicer?”
“What was the process of charging him and getting him into custody?”
The students learned that additional biological evidence had been recovered recently, though full details could not be shared because of the pending trial. What they did find out was that sophisticated technology allowed investigators to run the blood samples taken from the trunk of the car and, as a result, DNA matches of both Jones and Spicer were found. When a match was discovered, the arrest was made.
“It was an incredible experience,” Acevedo said. “For my career, I feel like working on these cold cases have made me a better reporter. It’s great to do the fun, fluffy stories but a hard news story like this takes a lot of work and dedication. It’s like we’re doing stories that a local newscast would do, while still juggling our other classes.”
For Gutierrez, a former investigative TV news reporter, helicopter reporter and news anchor for CBS and NBC, this is precisely the experience she wants for her students.
“In a newsroom, cold cases are usually handled by senior reporters; however, in my class we work as a team. I show them how to investigate, interview those involved and research court and related documents,” Gutierrez said. “This experience is invaluable to their confidence and future careers.”
“I definitely feel more experienced and confident as a reporter after doing these cold cases,” said Acevedo, who was named “Broadcaster of the Year” for 2012 by La Verne’s Communications Department. “I know that having these stories on my reel will open up great opportunities for me when I graduate.”
Students who take the senior-level TV News production course are trained to write, shoot, edit, report and anchor – skills necessary to be competitive in today’s media market.
Last semester, the students anchored two taped and three live news shows on Foothill Community News. They also each hosted a segment on Take 5, a feature show with segments on “how to pour and enjoy wine” to “make-up tips” and Straight Talk, a sit-down interview show featuring prominent guests such as Assemblywoman Norma Torres.