A good work day for you might be crossing everything off your to-do list; a satisfying work day for Sheryl McCollum may involve solving a 30-year-old cold case and helping law enforcement decipher clues from current and unsolved crimes. Sheryl is a crime scene investigator (CSI) for the Metro Atlanta Police Department and the director of the Cold Case Investigative Research Institute, which she founded in 2004. She and a huge team of forensic professionals and student volunteers devote thousands of hours to help victims of crime and research cold cases, including the Boston Strangler, Chandra Levy, Tupac Shakur and more. Her career began helping rape victims, and her professional path led her to work with the Department of Corrections, the Secretary of State, a federal task force to combat crime in dangerous areas, Mothers Against Drunk Driving — she even was the coordinator of a statewide response team to help victims of crime during Atlanta’s 1996 Olympic Games, which if you remember, involved a bomb that injured more than 100 people. In fact, her professional bio is so impressive, varied and lengthy, I just don’t have the word count to include everything. Besides keywords like “captain,” “director,” “CSI,” “educator” and more, the most encapsulating word I can use to describe Sheryl McCollum is “rockstar.” We are honored to have Sheryl McCollum, all-around cool mom/wife, hero and resident rockstar, become our newest StyleBlueprint FACE!
What made you decide to get into a career in criminal justice and become a crime scene investigator?
I became fascinated with crime and criminals when I was a young child. My mother would tell me fantastic stories about Bonnie and Clyde, Al Capone and Ma Baker. I was so captivated that I wanted to know more about them and their crimes. When I was young, my parents took me to see the Bonnie & Clyde car, then they took me to the FBI headquarters in Washington D.C., then later, we took a life-changing trip to Alcatraz. There was no going back. My path was set, and I have loved every minute of it.
How do you not let the serious, morbid work that you do affect you personally? What are some ways you separate your professional and personal worlds?
I’m lucky because I still have that same enthrallment and truly enjoy criminal investigation. The victims that have been harmed are of course the hardest part of the job, but I feel honored to be able to help them. I am also extremely lucky with a loving husband and two remarkable children who add so much joy to my life that it’s easy for me to see the good every day! When we are home, Atlanta offers tons of escapes. I adore the sea otters and sea lions at the Aquarium, Piedmont Park and anything going on at the Fox!
What’s the most fascinating case you’ve worked on (or are currently working on)? Why do you think some people gravitate towards certain unsolved crimes?
Every cold case is intriguing. The Moore’s Ford bridge case, which occurred in 1946, was captivating because of the history. The Boston Strangler, because as a child, that was one of my favorite whodunits, and to be able to work with the sons of the original case detective was remarkable. Then there are cases like Natalie Holloway, where we work it for years and come to care greatly about the family. The cases and the people are the great storytellers. I believe I could make anyone care about any of the crimes — it’s the way you tell the story.
You helped create the Cold Case Investigative Research Institute (CCIRI) in 2004. What is the goal of the organization, and how has your organization impacted cold cases and the investigative work that goes into solving these cases?
The CCIRI assists families and law enforcement with unsolved homicides, missing persons and kidnapping cases. This one-of-a-kind band of all-volunteer crime fighters consist of students and nationally recognized experts. The nonprofit organization is made up of profilers, detectives, crime analysts, prosecutors and crime scene investigators.
There are so many fictional crime dramas on TV these days. Do any of them get it right? When is your biopic coming to the screen?! Which actor would play you?
The actor that would play me would have to have a Southern accent, be funny, kind, smart, beautiful … Hell, I might have to play myself!
You were a panel member at CrimeCon in Nashville this year. What is it like meeting up with true crime “fans”/nerds? Do you ever see their morbid curiosity as a way to build a pool of future investigators and/or amateur sleuths?
At CrimeCon, I am among my people! I tell them anyone can solve a cold case. Civilians help solve cases all the time. Historically, citizens impacted the Zodiac, DC sniper and Jamie Bulger cases. Everyone has gifts and talents — you might notice something that no one else has because of a hobby or vocation you have.
Because of your storied experience not only investigating crime but working with victims, what tips can you share about avoiding dangerous situations, people and becoming a headline yourself?
Reduce your chances of becoming a victim by not getting drunk, doing drugs or other high risk behaviors. And lastly, your grandmother was right — nothing good happens after midnight!
Most women are murdered by someone they have slept with — choose wisely and not very often. The hard reality is not all crime can be prevented. You can do everything right and still be harmed.
When you speak at Career Day at your children’s schools, do you pretty much blow everyone else out of the water? How do you explain your work to your children?
YES! I am the coolest mom, hands down! I can talk about numerous crimes that are funny, quirky and on their level — cases where graffiti was misspelled or a burglar was attacked by a cat. Remember: I have enjoyed crime and criminals since I was 4, so I can tell lots of tales on many levels.
How do you select the cold cases you research at CCIRI? After a certain amount of time passes without an identified criminal, how do you decide to officially stop an investigation? Is it a feeling of defeat, bittersweet pride, something else?
I select cases because I believe we can help in some way. We have experts in varied disciplines that can offer cases results, new theories or action plans. So, if during a case review we see an area where CCIRI can move a case forward, we take that case. Once we take a case we do not formally close it until law enforcement has taken action based on our action plan or findings. There is zero feeling of defeat because we tried when all other avenues failed. We understand all cases will not be solved. But, we also know that we can do something – even if it’s just to get the conversation about a forgotten case going again.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
I actually have books where I get all experts and victims’ families to write advice to the students. I have one page where a K9 officer buddy of mine simply wrote, “Trust your dog.” A famous attorney in Atlanta wrote, “Laugh a lot.” A great detective told me once, “Know the difference in what you know, what you believe and what you can prove.”
What are three things you cannot live without, excluding friends, family and faith?
My blue light, a compass and tequila. One way or the other, I’m escaping!
Our thanks to the fascinating Sheryl McCollum for spending her entire life fighting for victims and the justice they seek. And as always, our thanks to CatMax Photography for today’s awesome shots!
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