Getting a clue at the crime scene

Friday, June 25, 2004

Dried blood on a knife. Red stains on the sidewalk. A torn piece of clothing. A cigarette butt. A pair of sandals. A dropped textbook. An empty water bottle. An abandoned bicycle.

These are just some of the clues that greeted 15 children at a mock crime scene Thursday in the courtyard of Magill Hall at Southeast Missouri State University.

There was no dead body at this scene. But that didn't deaden the enthusiasm of these young forensic sleuths as they walked through garden mulch, moving from one piece of evidence to another.

The children, ages 10 to 14, participated in a weeklong crime scene investigations class, part of the Horizons program of summer enrichment courses.

Wearing plastic gloves and armed with clipboards, they took notes on the evidence they found and made diagrams of the crime scene to show where each piece of evidence was found. They carefully swabbed patches of dried blood and searched for fingerprints.

The class, which met three hours each morning and wraps up today, capitalizes on the popularity of the "CSI" television show.

Lauren O'Pry, a graduate student in chemistry at Southeast, said the goal of the class is to help children appreciate science.

"Forensic science isn't as easy as it looks on TV," she said. "It involves a lot of chemistry and critical thinking."

O'Pry, who wants to work in a forensic lab when she graduates, said television's "CSI" is more Hollywood than real science. It gives people the mistaken impression that a good set of fingerprints can always be found at a crime scene, she said.

"There is a little science there, but they dress it up somewhat," O'Pry said.

But the show has been good in one respect, she said.

"I think it does a real good job of getting people interested in the forensic field."

O'Pry and undergraduate chemistry student Jessica Boester of Okawville, Ill., set up the fake crime scene, complete with real yellow and black crime scene tape.

The scene looked so real that one secretary in Magill Hall wondered what had happened in the courtyard.

The students spent the week dusting soda cans for fingerprints and learning how to test for illegal drugs and how to search for evidence at a crime scene.

Becky Schneider, 10, of Cape Girardeau said she wouldn't compare the class to the popular television show.

"It's not like 'CSI' on TV. It's not all Hollywood," she said after spending about half an hour searching for crime clues in the courtyard.

The class was divided into three groups with each group getting time to investigate the "crime scene."

While the class was "kind of fun," Becky said she has no intention of working in a crime lab. "I want to be a dance teacher," she said.

Wilson McNeary, 12, of Charleston, Mo., cast a thoughtful gaze at the crime scene, going over the evidence in his mind while classmates looked over red stains on the sidewalk behind him.

"It's challenging because you have to find all the evidence," he said.

Logan Crowley, 12, of Dexter, Mo., said the knife was the best piece of evidence. Logan said much of the evidence wasn't hard to find.

The mock crime involved an unknown man alleged to have attacked a female college student. The students are scheduled to discuss their forensic conclusions in class today.

"We think he got away through the windows," Logan said Thursday after he and some of his fellow students took a close look at several ground-floor windows that open into the courtyard.

Hearing that scenario, O'Pry quietly told another adult that she set up the mock crime with the thought that the perpetrator fled through a doorway, not through a window.

Still, she was impressed with their assessments of the crime scene.

"These kids are good thinkers," O'Pry said.

Crystal Ahrens, 10, of Jackson said the mock crime scene was different from the television crime show in one major respect.

"Most times you find dead bodies there," Crystal said.

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