White Bear Lake, Minn. (June 17, 2011) – Fifty teen-agers from Twin Cities-area school districts explored the world of crime scene investigation – and attempted to solve the simulated murder of the college president – at an extraordinary “CSI Century: In Search of the Truth” conference June 14-16 at Century College.
Confronted with the question “Who Killed Ron Anderson?” the teens spent three days investigating the simulated crime. Along the way, they learned about firearms examination, fingerprint analysis, mobile phone forensics, computer evidence and crime analysis.
Working with a simulated case file, the students examined the evidence at the crime scene, from a cell phone in the trash and cartridge casings, to fingerprints on a coffee cup, and even a pretend victim with two gunshot wounds. They followed through with the investigation process all the way through to its conclusion.
The students immersed themselves in the exercise and had heated discussions about the sometimes-confusing evidence and possible perpetrators. On the third day, each group of teens had to present their evidence to real Washington County attorneys and ask for arrest warrants and search warrants for the suspects.
“I think I found my calling,” said Queen Ngale of Irondale High School. “I would like to be a crime analyst.”
“I learned a lot about all the different career paths you can take,” said Matthew Schleusner of Stillwater.
“I really liked that we got to talk to real professionals in the field – not just people teaching you about things,” said Anna Lewinska of Mahtomedi High School.
“We really had to think and be able to back up our statements when we presented to the county attorney,” said Hannah Garcia of Mahtomedi High School. “I really learned a lot.”
Former police officer Mary Vukelich of the Century Law Enforcement Program said one of the main goals of the conference was to introduce students to the wide variety of behind-the-scenes careers related to crime analysis. In addition, the CSI Century team hoped to raise awareness about the necessary education, study and commitment it takes to be successful in those careers.
“Students now know that crime scene investigation is not what they see on TV,” said Vukelich. “But they also know that there are many interesting, meaningful careers that they should consider.”
Many presenters urged students to take science, math, computer and public speaking courses to prepare them for careers in the crime analysis field.
Perhaps the most unusual lunch-time presentation was given by forensic entomologist Valerie Cervenka who told the students that she spends her days in a laboratory examining maggots and other insects found on dead bodies. She noted that a body dumped in the woods, for example, attracts insects, and determining the stage of the insects’ life cycle can help determine the victim’s time of death.
“We know how long to takes to move from egg to maggot to adult,” said Cervenka. “This is one of the most reliable means we have to determine time of death in the first 72 hours.” Other evidence includes body temperature, the pattern of blood settling, stomach contents and rigor mortis.
Gazing at graphic photos of insect infestations, the students didn’t flinch. Later, many said this presentation was their favorite.
Students also talked to Hennepin County Deputy Diane Nelson, who brought the county’s mobile crime lab to Century and allowed students to see the equipment she works with when processing a crime scene. Nelson, a latent fingerprint expert who received three years of on-the-job training after her formal college education, emphasized that evidence collection is a painstaking process that can take some unusual turns.
She noted that she once helped convict a serial burglar with DNA evidence she collected from a partially-consumed corndog. “Busted by a corndog,” she commented. “It can happen.”
By the way, who killed Ron Anderson? The students obtained arrest warrants for their prime suspect, a dean at the college, who killed him in a “blind rage” over criticism of her programs.
But the students’ investigation didn’t reveal the second simulated shooter, a biology professor, who was hired by the head of the college’s IT unit to kill the president.
“In real life, this can happen,” said Vukelich. “Statutes are open to interpretation, investigations are often incomplete and we have to work with many unknowns.”
The CSI Century: In Search of the Truth conference was funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.