Behind the Scenes: Janice Coles, Detective and Crime Analyst, University Police Department

August 18, 2008

At an institution as large as U.Va., it’s easy to forget that it consists of many individually moving parts. We may take for granted the roughly 13,500 employees who keep the whole operation humming every day. Who, for instance, keeps all the UTS buses on the road? Who watches what students eat? Who flies critically injured patients to the hospital? The fall issue of U.Va. Magazine highlights nine such employees -- a few of the small pictures that make up U.Va.’s big picture.

In anticipation of the new academic year, UVA Today will in the coming days publish excerpts of the profiles, which were written by Sierra Bellows, Michelle Cuevas and Paul Evans.

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When she was a little girl, Janice Coles read every Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys book that her neighborhood library had on its shelves. She enjoyed looking for patterns and solving mysteries; she didn’t know it then, but police work would be her calling. "I feel like I was meant to do it," says Coles. Since 1992, she has served the U.Va. Police Department as a patrol officer, a detective and now as its first crime analyst.

With a staff of 130, the University’s police department closely resembles a city police force; officers are trained at the same academy and have similar rights and responsibilities. Their jurisdiction includes the U.Va. hospital, the Grounds and, jointly with Charlottesville police, areas like the Corner, where the University population mingles with the city’s. "U.Va. has a very open campus—people flow in and out of it easily—so police officers need to be flexible, too," says Coles.

 One of her biggest cases as a detective affected not only U.Va. but also Albemarle County and the cities of Charlottesville and Waynesboro. For seven years, between 1997 and 2004, a serial rapist had been brutally attacking women in the region. Police determined through DNA that the same person committed all seven assaults, but the case remained unsolved.

 Assigned to the multijurisdictional task force investigating the serial rapist, Coles pored over every detail of the case and researched the backgrounds of hundreds of suspects. After a victim came forward with a license plate number that might prove helpful to the investigation, Coles was led to Nathan Antonio Washington—a 40-year-old newspaper carrier and meat cutter with a wife and four children.

Coles put him under surveillance and after closely scrutinizing Washington’s life against every aspect of the case, she became convinced that she had the right man. A straw from a soda purchased at a Charlottesville Burger King provided police with Washington’s DNA.

U.Va.’s police chief called Coles at home to tell her that it matched DNA from the crime scenes. "I didn’t believe it was over," says Coles. "It’d become a routine to check for him every day for years."

Early this year, Washington was sentenced to four life sentences plus 20 years. "Women still come up to me sometimes and say thank you," say Coles. "They feel safer. That is the most rewarding part of my job." Her work also earned Coles an Outstanding Contribution Award from U.Va.’s human resources department.

Photo by Jack Looney