How to Solve a Murder

While most teenagers spent their Saturday morning devouring bowls of Cocoa Puffs and catching up on cartoons, three young women solved a murder. Four murders actually, all of which occurred at Seton Hill University’s (SHU) crime scene house as part of a crime scene investigation (CSI) day camp for high schoolers.

“When we first started at the crime scene house, there were a lot of things I missed,” said Brianna Hodak, a sophomore from Apollo-Ridge High School. “By the end, I was finding things I probably never would have noticed.”

Hodak was one of three participants at the CSI camp hosted on March 19. Kayla Percic, a SHU senior forensic science and chemistry double major, developed the camp as part of her honors capstone project.

“When I was in high school, I attended a similar camp at Waynesburg University and loved it,” said Percic. “In creating my project, I thought one should be available not only for my local hometown [of Apollo] but also for our campus as well.”

High school students learn how to perform a blood stain analysis. Photo courtesy of J.Walker

High school students learn how to perform a blood stain analysis. Photo courtesy of J.Walker

SHU’s forensic science program incorporates a variety of science disciplines, including biology and physics, to teach students how to analyze mock crime scenes. These courses prepare them for careers in areas such as coroners’ offices, criminal justice, law and forensic laboratories. According to Percic, their work can identify victims or connect separate crimes to determine if they are consistent with a serial killer.

Percic’s CSI day camp included three topics–bloodstain, fingerprinting and hair analysis–in order to provide an overview of SHU’s program.

After a breakfast of doughnuts and juice, participants had to quickly put aside any thoughts of food for the first station: bloodstain analysis. They dropped red dye onto paper to demonstrate how different angles affect the way blood appears on a surface.

“I enjoyed seeing how different types of blood splatter can show you where the blood came from and what caused it to occur,” said Elizabeth Ross, another student from Apollo-Ridge.

“There’s many different kinds, from arterial spurts to cast-offs,” said Hodak. “We also learned how to find the direction a person is traveling by blood drops.”

Other stations involved hair analysis and fingerprinting. Using microscopes, the participants studied the structure of their own hair, as well as samples from various animals. They then dusted desks, glass and books for fingerprints.

Percic aids in solving a murder at the SHU crime scene house. Photo courtesy of J.Walker.

Percic aids in solving a murder at the SHU crime scene house. Photo courtesy of J.Walker.

Although popular television shows make solving a murder seem as simple as scanning a fingerprint through a database, true forensic science involves more scrutiny.

“TV shows are 45 minutes, but real cases can take years,” said Percic. “Especially with fingerprinting, when a character gets a match on TV, it shows up with the person’s picture, name and home address. In reality, you get a case number. You might find a criminal number from that case, and then maybe you’ll be able to track down the person.”

Students discovered the importance of learning the many facets of forensic science. “On shows, you just see a lot of investigation of the crime scene itself,” Ross said. “What it doesn’t show is all of the lab work involved.”

Percic’s camp may have proved just how different television is from reality, but gloomy skies and a drizzle of rain provided a picture-perfect backdrop during the participants’ trek to the SHU crime scene house. It was time to put their knowledge of bloodstain, hair and fingerprinting analysis to the test.

The first scene involved “Manny,” the forensic science mannequin who has endured his share of crimes. As part of their study, SHU students use Manny and the crime scene house to apply their knowledge from classes and laboratories through creating and solving their own mock crimes.

Elizabeth Ross, Breanna Murray and Brianna Hodak reenact a crime scene. Photo courtesy of J.Walker.

Elizabeth Ross, Breanna Murray and Brianna Hodak reenact a crime scene. Photo courtesy of J.Walker.

The high school students pointed out broken glass, various bloodstain patterns and several murder weapons such as knives and pool sticks. Manny had been killed by not one, but two murderers.

“Before this camp, I would have overlooked a lot of important details involved in searching a crime scene,” said Ross. “I learned in the crime scene house that paying attention to all of the little elements of the crime will lead to solving it, or at least getting an idea of what happened.”

After solving Manny’s death in the crime scene house’s basement, participants moved through the bathroom, living room and bedrooms. They each pointed out different evidence, such as fingerprints on light switches or overturned couch cushions. Teamwork allowed them to piece together information and develop scenarios for the crimes.

“Another thing about TV shows is that there’s always only one analyst who does all the work,” Percic said. “In reality, each discipline has its own analyst. You have one person working with blood, another doing fingerprinting and many others all working on different aspects.”

By the camp’s conclusion, the high school students were laughing and smiling as they pointed out blood splatters on the ceiling. They even posed to take pictures with Manny.

“Because of the small size, each participant got to do all the activities and have a hands-on experience,” said Percic. “I really hope the camp will continue. It’s good for both Seton Hill and the high school students.”

In fact, Kristen DiMonte, a SHU sophomore forensic science and chemistry double major, plans to model her honors capstone project on Percic’s camp. After helping to teach the bloodstain analysis station, she wants to continue the project because it is an opportunity she wished she had in high school.

“I want that option to be available to all who are interested in forensic science and want to learn more about it to see if this career is right for them,” said DiMonte. “It’s also just plain fun.”

A participant in Percic's camp dusts for fingerprints. Photo courtesy of J.Walker.

A participant in Percic’s camp dusts for fingerprints. Photo courtesy of J.Walker.

DiMonte plans to publicize the camp more in the coming years to attract additional participants, which will be just enough time for a new batch of murders to take place at SHU.

“I learned a lot about forensic science, but I also had a lot of fun while doing it,” Ross said. “I may decide to pursue forensic science in the future because this camp has showed me how interesting it can be.”

Hodak agrees the field is one she’s come to appreciate. “I loved being able to find evidence and solve mysteries,” she said.

Percic also gained insight into her professional future after leading her camp. “It really helped me describe those three topics [bloodstain, hair and fingerprinting analysis] in layman’s terms,” she said. “Every time I go on trial as an expert witness I’ll have to explain to the jury what I do, and they probably won’t have scientific background. Even if I work in a lab, it helped me prepare for when I’ll be asked to train incoming employees.”

“Forensic science may not be all the gloriousness you see on television,” she continued, “but it’s a rewarding field. Your work can put the minds of victims’ families at ease.”

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