by KIM HILSENBECK
As the lead investigator of the crime scene, Jerry Ayala spoke to witnesses to piece together the clues and develop a working theory of whodunit.
There were six witnesses; two emergency medical technicians and four police officers. Ayala also assigned teams to measure the house and collect details about the scene.
“Me and my partner arrived at 11:45 p.m.,” said Officer Prime, one of the police officers who was first on the scene.
Prime and his partner, Officer Bee, checked out the back of the house. The other officers, Brawl and Jazz, provided their details to Ayala. EMTs Ironhide and Ratchet did the same.
“We found signs of forced entry at the back door,” Prime said. “We surveyed the house until we met up with officers Jazz and Brawl in the kitchen.”
If the names of those officers sound a lot like characters from The Transformers, it’s because they are. Jolene Richlen, a Forensics teacher at Lehman High School, admitted she used names from the popular fiction story.
Richlen said the class has been offered for the past five years; she has taught it for the last two.
What does she think is the appeal of this class?
“They see it on TV and so now they have a class where they can learn what they’re doing and now they know how it works,” Richlen said.
“I do get a lot of, ‘How do I get away with this’ kind of questions,” she said. For example, someone asked, “If I burn off my fingerprints, am I going to get away with it?”
A student interrupted with a question about the exercise.
She listened for a moment then responded, “Make sure everybody’s stories are matching, check to see that nobody is leaving out information.”
Ayala, who is 16, said everyone he’d interviewed so far had the same version of events. But he had yet to talk to the EMTs on the other side of the room.
A group of role-playing students broke character long enough to answer, “What is the most interesting thing about taking a forensics class?”
“We seem to be doing a lot of fun things in here,” said Jordan Newhall, 18.
From a nearby group, a student interjected, “How to kill people.”
But the student amended that statement, saying “How not to get caught.”
The forensics class counts as a science credit for seniors at Lehman High School; it’s an elective for other students.
Richlen said they use a lot of role-playing but it is science.
Her interest in forensics stems from her anthropology degree.
“‘I’ve always been interested in anthropology,” she said. “I’m going to go back and get my masters in forensic anthropology and hopefully work in a crime lab somewhere identifying human remains.”
“I’d been trying to get my hands on this class because I’ve taught chemistry; I know the background to all the stuff I’m teaching.”
Forensics is a science that encompasses several fields of study: chemistry, biology, physics. Occasionally a crime also requires some understanding of other fields including zoology, mineralogy and textiles.
“I try to get real world guest speakers in to talk with the students,” she said.
Richlen said she is not teaching a fluff class.
“I expect them to learn and I hold them accountable. They have to fill out their notebooks and you can see the progression. This is the best group I’ve had; they ask very good questions.”
She said many of the class lessons lead to discussions of what ifs.
“Someone might ask, ‘If I put them in a vat of alcohol, what would happen?’ So we start taking about that, but someone will chime in, ‘but someone can trace that.’ They have started asking really good questions.”
Richlen said she and her students get involved in discussions about details related to crime scenes and forensics.
“Some of them have started thinking about the consequences and all the little things where they could get caught,” she said.
Richlen said a big part of the mock crime scenes involves questioning skills.
“We play a game called Dead Guy,” Richlen said. “I pick a famous killer, it’s been serial killers lately. They ask me up to 20 questions. But if they get to 19 and someone asks a really good question with a lot of detail, I’ll give them an extra question.”
So much of forensics is about critical thinking, she said.
“They’ve gotten better,” Richlen said. She smiled. “Sometimes they get derailed.”
She and fellow teacher Lori Smith have been trying to teach the logic and common sense part of forensics but also in general.
‘”You always have to think about how your part would affect a legal case,” Richlen said.
Regarding the chain of evidence, she said “I try to cover as much of that as possible – follow your job to the letter. Always think, ‘could this be questioned in any way,’ Make sure that whatever you’re doing couldn’t be picked apart by a defense attorney.”
“We really want to hit on their questioning skills,” she said. “So if they didn’t ask the right questions, they wouldn’t be able to solve the case because they would be missing key information.”
When her investigative team did the exercise wrap up, which involved a victim who was struck on the skull from behind, they nailed the scenario on the head, so to speak.
“Somebody broke into the back door,” said one of the investigators. “There were bloody footprints and forced entry. The hit on the back of the head indicates it was a surprise.”
Other students added that the library was not touched, yet the office was ransacked.
“So what is the conclusion?” Richlen asked.
One student called out, “He knew the perpetrator. They were looking for something specific.”
Several students in the class said it’s important to follow the facts.
“Evidence is key,” said one young lady.
More than half the class said they would want a future job in forensics.