Unraveling the mystery: Students decode crime scene using classroom skills

It is 5:30 in the evening on a crisp day in April. Law enforcement arrives outside a whitewashed house on the city’s northeast side. A vague dispatch call reports concerned neighbors heard strange noises, loud bangs and have noticed a light on in the attic of the supposedly vacant two-story cottage.

Mock crime scene for criminal justice students
This is a view of the living room that criminal justice students processed during their mock crime scene assignment this spring.

Investigators approach with caution. They hike through the overgrown lawn, climb moss covered steps to reach the porch and peer through the storm door window. A call to colleagues: “We’ve got smoke and blood here.” Something sinister has happened.

While this scenario sounds like the opening of an evening TV whodunit, it is in fact the mock crime scene of Mount Mercy’s Criminal Investigations class. Officials on the scene are sophomore, junior and senior criminal justice students, applying techniques taught during spring semester in a true-to-life, hands-on learning experience completely controlled by faculty and based on actual cases.

“A good portion of this class was hands-on through a mock search pattern technique scenario, plaster casting of footprints, lifting fingerprints and so on.  All of this was applied at the end to the mock scene,” explained Blake Mikesell, criminal justice faculty and director of Mount Mercy University public safety. “We tried to make the scene as realistic as possible.”

Realistic indeed. As students proceeded inside the ominous unknown with latex gloves and breathing masks, smoke softly billowed from the open door. It was dark. There was a foul odor. It was smoky. Filth and blood, lots of blood, strewn everywhere. Walking into the house was unnerving, even knowing that none of it was real.

Criminal justice student investigates mock crime scene
Criminal justice student photographs evidence at the mock crime scene.

A smoke bomb provided the harmless fog and ketchup acted as blood. To create the stench Mikesell explained, “I used smoked sardines and pickled ham that had been sitting for a few days. They needed to get used to some of the sights, sounds and smells of this field.”

Students entered the residence as any professional law enforcement agent would, each having their own role in assessing the situation and preserving the integrity of impending evidence. Some were photographers, documenting the grizzly sights in each room and the messages on graffiti-covered walls. Others collected evidence, gathering pieces like newspaper ads, mysterious plastic cups of alcohol and pill bottles left on dusty floorboards.

“Students have to make many decisions in this mock scene such as whether they can enter the house legally based upon a very vague dispatch call, is there a lead investigator and how will that person approach the scene with 15 other officers there, how will they approach handling of evidence and how did they control the scene from being contaminated,” said Mikesell.

Group of criminal justice students during the investigation
Criminal justice students receive investigation advice from instructor Blake Mikesell.

“They investigated for a few hours, then we went back to the classroom to debrief on the evidence they found,” he continued. “If they lifted any finger or hand prints from the scene, I acted as the lab and gave them an answer to who those prints belonged to.”

Giving students the chance to process through a mock investigation, providing them a lifelike experience in a learning environment, is a unique and critical component to Mount Mercy’s criminal justice curriculum. The faux scene presented an opportunity for students to think like criminals instead of cops, so when they launch into justice-based careers they’ve had a taste of the psyches they may encounter in their professions.

Mikesell said, “I feel that in the criminal justice field, we need to do more creative things to prepare our students for work in the field. This class gives them that opportunity. Students appreciate the real-life cases and being able to think freely about issues and evidence.”

All parts of the investigation culminated in the students’ final papers, where they explained exactly what they believe happened at the house based on crime scene evidence. Several students came very close to determining what grim altercation had transpired after the entire scenario had been processed.

“The scenario was made up to appear to be a murder committed by a homeless person squatting in an abandoned house against another homeless victim,” Mikesell said. “With no body present, but a substantial amount of blood, it appeared to be a homicide.”

What did students think of this experience? Mikesell reported, “The feedback was great. The students were happy they got a chance to practice some things they had been studying. I think they took away a better understanding of this field and that it is definitely NOT like what they see on television or in movies.”

The residence was cleaned and will host another batch of students with a new mock crime to investigate next spring.


Written by Kelli Sanders