Chicago journalism students call attention to unsolved murders of 51 women

'Our job was not to solve the case, but to shine light on the case.'

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A group of journalism students in Chicago has shed light on the cold cases of more than 50 women who were brutally murdered in the city over the past 20 years. 

The effort was spearheaded by Roosevelt University Journalism professor John Fountain who, last January, tasked his students with giving a voice to the voiceless by sharing the untold stories of 51 women whose deaths remain unsolved and ignored by mainstream media, PEOPLE reports.

“Our job was not to solve the case, but to shine light on the case in the hope that it would be solved and the families would have solace and these women would ultimately have justice,” said Fountain.

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All the victims were reportedly strangled, some dismembered or burned, and their bodies “left in alleys, vacant lots and abandoned houses,” according to the report. One research group, Murder Accountability Project, believes the killings may be the work of a serial killer.

“As I began to look for stories about who these women were, what was very striking to me was that there were not stories about the humanity of these women,” said Fountain, a former New York Times national correspondent and former chief crime reporter for the Chicago Tribune. 

“The stories focused on this sensational notion that there might be a serial killer loose, but not on the women themselves,” he continued  “If there were 51 dogs killed in the city of Chicago, we would be up in arms. These are 51 women and we should care.” 

Fountain’s students tracked down the victims’ families and some were more than willing to discuss their loved ones, while others were apprehensive. 

“One of the obstacles that I did not anticipate that we ran into was the fact that this story, when it had been written, the women had been mischaracterized as prostitutes and drug addicts,” said Fountain. “There were many relatives who were very offended by that. And some of them simply did not want to talk to us. And so we found ourselves having to dang near apologize for what had been done, and letting them know, the folks who would talk to us, that we were simply trying to tell the human story, not the fact that they died, or were killed, but the fact that they lived.”

The Murder Accountability Project was first to raise awareness about the 51 murders, claiming many of the victims were prostitutes or drug addicts. 

“Even if they were, number one, that’s not true, but even if they were, they were human beings and they have a story to tell,” Fountain said.

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Many believe the reason not much effort has been made to solve these murders is because the women are mostly Black. 

Samantha Latson, one of Fountain’s 16 student journalists, noted “we’re America’s most unwanted. No one really wants to hear our stories, one because we’re Black and two because we’re women.” 

The students’ work can be found on unforgotten51.com, a website dedicated to the renewed interest in the 51 women.

“We encountered a lot of tears of joy and shock that anybody would be interested in talking to them. Some folks had not even heard from the police,” said Fountain of the victim’s families. 

“Part of the hope of our project is that in telling the story, in the publicity that it gets, the fact that it is out there, that there is now a place where people can go and read about the story, read about these women,” he added. “And understand, get a sense of the humanity lost. And the gist of our project, the heart of our project, is there may be other folks who will be willing to come forward and talk to us.”

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