BGSU’s Tonya Rider lends talents to ‘Cold Justice’

Forensic investigations instructor helps solve high-profile, cold case murders

By Bob Cunningham

Students in Bowling Green State University’s criminal justice program are the beneficiaries of Tonya Rider’s vast experience working as a homicide investigator.

Now, viewers of the TV show “Cold Justice” also will be able to learn from her expertise.

Rider, an instructor who teaches forensic investigations and criminal justice classes at BGSU, retired from the Toledo Police Department in 2016 after an accomplished career.

“I worked for the police department for 26 years and I do get a lot of questions from my students,” she said. “Often they ask about my experiences working specific cases or what it was like investigating homicides. They seem really interested in having someone in the classroom who has actually been in the field.”

During her career, Rider received a Meritorious Service Medal for her work on a high-profile, cold case homicide investigation. The case involved the murder of a Catholic nun by Father Gerald Robinson, who was convicted of killing her in 2006. In addition to her work as a homicide detective, Rider’s passion to help others took her to the department’s sexual assault unit, where she successfully obtained hundreds of sexual assault convictions, including more than three Federal Internet Crimes Against Children’s (ICAC) convictions while working in conjunction with the Secret Service. Since 2009, she has served as a Consultant to the State of Ohio Attorney General on Sexual Assault Investigations.

After the Toledo ABC affiliate, WTVG-TV Channel 13, aired a profile about Rider marking her retirement and celebrating her accomplishments, production companies took notice. That included the producers of “Cold Justice,” airing on the cable network Oxygen, which specializes in crime shows.

“Within the first month, I started receiving phone calls from various production companies inquiring if I would be interested in discussing crime show opportunities,” she said. “At that point, I was focused on my upcoming start at BGSU and wasn’t interested in taking on another endeavor. I think the timing and chemistry was right with ‘Cold Justice.’ They called at the right time, and I was somewhat settled here at BGSU. I was a little more prepared to entertain the opportunity, and one thing led to another.”

On “Cold Justice,” Rider is on a team of four investigators along with longtime prosecutor Kelly Siegler that teams up with local police departments to help solve cold cases.

“We don’t just show up unannounced,” Rider said. “Once we are invited, we review the cases in advance and then we go work with local law enforcement to try to give them a different perspective on leads they may have pursued in the past or to revitalize the case.”

Rider said the communities that the show helps are often towns where it’s unusual to have high-profile murder cases or other crimes, so the assistance is welcomed.

Rider said working on the show isn’t much different than her former job at the Toledo Police Department — except for cameras following her every move.

“You’re cognizant of the cameras initially, but once you delve into the work you forget all about them,” she said. “So in that respect, it’s very much like my former job.

“With ‘Cold Justice’ we concentrate on the investigations for a condensed amount of time, and sometimes our days are 12-14 hours long. The entire time that we are in town we’re constantly working — there’s no down time. At the end of the work day we go back to our hotel, get our call time for the following morning, go to bed, and get back up and do it all over again.”

Typically, investigators work up to two weeks on a case for “Cold Justice,” but Rider said it’s a rewarding experience.

“You’re usually away from home between eight to 10 days, so it’s a long time to be away from your family members,” she said. “The rewards of working on these cases far outweigh the temporary time away.”

Were Rider and the investigation team successful?

“You’ll have to watch the show,” she said. “All of the episodes are awesome. I’m in episodes three and eight. Episode three deals with the murder of an elderly gentleman over an inheritance dispute. Episode eight deals with an elderly female who was murdered within days of her husband passing away. Both of those cases shocked the communities.”

The lessons she learned on the show are ones that will translate to the classroom at BGSU.

“Even after having 26 years of experience on a police department, I continually learn from my colleagues both at the University and on ‘Cold Justice.’ Taking advantage of the opportunity to participate in the show has exposed me to many dedicated, hardworking law enforcement professionals. I’ve definitely benefited from the experience and different perspectives.”

Even though it called for long work hours and time spent away from her family and friends, Rider said she would appear on the show again if asked.

“It keeps me relevant,” she said. “It’s the best of both worlds because I loved what I did as a homicide investigator. This show affords me the opportunity to dabble in something that I enjoy doing while still being able to come home and be with my students. I get the best of both worlds, and everyone here at BGSU has been extremely supportive. It’s just been a good experience for me.”

The new season of “Cold Justice” debuted on July 22 on the Oxygen channel.