Investigation class delves into murder clues

Did the man hanging in the woods behind the College of Arts and Sciences Building commit suicide or was he murdered? That’s one of the staged cases Maurice Godwin’s University of Alaska Anchorage class had to solve last week. Throughout the week, the body count on campus rose to four, as groups from the 25-member class planted body after body among gory crime scenes as an assignment for the undergraduate justice course.

The class first broke into four groups. By Monday, two of the groups had planted a dummy each among blood (mostly corn syrup, red dye and water), hair and other items. Then, the two other groups began to investigate the crimes, the other of which was staged in an upstairs bathroom in the CAS Building. On Wednesday, they changed groups and crimes.

Godwin’s class, Criminal Investigation, acted out what they learned from books by lifting fingerprint samples with tape and by collecting blood samples. Students had to figure out what happened at the crime scenes, find a specific suspect and then follow a paper trail of interviews, autopsies and blood typing. But it wasn’t easy.

Was that blood on his wrists or bruises? It looked as if he’d been tied, but they weren’t sure.

‘It’s easier reading about it in the book,’ said Nick Mendez. A member of the group assigned to investigate a hate crime, Mendez sorted through a wooded area surrounded by frosty leaves.

The case Mendez and his group members had to solve was that of a young, gay male who had recently come out publicly via the college newspaper. His body, found hanging but slumped against a tree, had bruising and lacerations, signs of physical confrontation and restraint. Police reports showed there had been prior harassment and death threats, and the victim claimed he would never kill himself.

Cory Magro, who called out items from her list, asked group members, ‘Has anyone checked this guy’s pockets?’

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Group members answered, “Yes, yes.”

While the outside group continued its investigation, Rod Benek’s group, all justice majors, carried a female dummy from the Justice Center to the bathroom.

‘To make it confusing, we made the evidence match the blood type of more than one of the ex-boyfriends,’ Benek said. They also used putty to attach fake hair and blood on a door jam in the hallway and left blood spatters trailing toward the bathroom.

When Benek’s group finished setting the bathroom scene, Travis Jensen’s group started its investigation of the rape/murder.

Jensen leaned against the tile wall as he began a detailed crime scene sketch. ‘You don’t have to worry about exact measurements,’ he explained.

As a team member collecting evidence happened upon a semen-like substance on the leg of the dummy, he called out, ‘Travis, we’ve got ourselves a sexual assault!’

One classmate took photos while another recorded them in a notebook for later identification.

As they wrapped up their investigation in the bathroom, groups who had set up the scenes waited in the hallway, in case there were any requests for information.

‘We did up interview notes with ex-boyfriends of the victim, but we don’t have to give them to the group unless they ask for them,’ Beneck said.

The groups have a week to submit complete crime scene reports that will be graded on whether they followed proper procedures. ‘If they don’t note the boundaries with tape or imaginary tape, it would be wrong. If they used plastic rather than paper, allowing the evidence to breathe, that would be wrong,’ said Godwin.

‘Surprisingly, actual training for criminal investigations does not go through this. It’s on the job training with a veteran, whereas lawyers get mock trials,’ Godwin said.

Benek, who said he might become a probations or parole officer, said, ‘Anyone going into a justice field should be able to investigate a scene, so at the very least, they could empathize with investigators.’

The book Godwin will use for his next class, Criminal Profiling, is his second and was released last week. Seventy people have signed up for the 80-person class so far.