Of Crimes and Clues

Of Crimes and Clues

Blood pools on the kitchen floor. Droplets spatter the cabinets. In a small room off the cottage’s entryway, crime-scene investigators study blood spatters on the wall and bloody handprints on the floor. In the bedrooms, they photograph more bloodstains, looking for clues about the crimes that left these gruesome settings.

But no one was murdered here. The cottage in South Knoxville is one of many training grounds used by the nation’s premier crime-scene investigation school, the University of Tennessee’s National Forensic Academy (NFA). To date, the academy–a program of the Law Enforcement Innovation Center, an agency of the UT Institute for Public Service–has trained about 250 CSIs representing 45 states and the District of Columbia, from Florida to Alaska, from the Texas Rangers to the New York Police Department.

Real-Life CSI

The day before the 17 CSIs arrived at the “blood spatter” house last summer, NFA forensic program manager Jarrett Hallcox and forensic specialist Amy Welch set up the scene. Dressed in Tyvek suits and gloves, they acted out crimes from the files of NFA’s blood-spatter instructor, Jeff Gurvis, who works for a forensic lab in Chicago.

Hallcox poured blood across a blade and stabbed at the air, causing spatters on the walls and floor as if a knifing had taken place. In another room, Welch poured blood on a baseball bat and swung it as if bludgeoning a man to death. Then she filled a syringe with blood and squirted it, simulating what would happen if someone had slit her throat.

Mock crime scenes like the blood–spatter house provide the hands-on training that’s made NFA special. Hallcox, Welch, and forensic coordinator Nathan Lefebvre also stage an arson scene, blow up a car, and simulate other calamities for students to investigate each session.

For their final project, the students encounter a “hell scene,” an elaborate simulated crime scene where they can practice the techniques they’ve learned during their 10-week course. Past hell scenes have included exploding cars, forensic dummies falling from the sky, and an airplane fuselage crashing to the ground. For their hell scene last summer, the CSIs were taken into the woods near Oak Ridge where NFA instructors had constructed a multiple murder scene.

Combing the area for evidence, the CSIs marked footprints and tire skid marks. They searched a car riddled with bullet holes and blood smears. They found one victim lying in a ditch and followed clues through weeds and trees to find a second victim buried in a shallow grave. “We’ll let academy students experiment, try all sorts of techniques,” Welch says. “Our theory is, you may not be able to try some things while you’re on the job, but you can try it here.”

How It Started

In 1999 UT partnered with the Knoxville Police Department to create a training program for local officers. “From those meetings, we determined that there were some gaps in police training. Crime-scene investigation was one of those gaps. There wasn’t a good place anywhere in the nation to get comprehensive training,” says Mike Sullivan, former executive director of the Law Enforcement Innovation Center (LEIC).

UT assembled a team of forensic professionals from the Southeast to sketch out a state-of-the-art CSI training program. When Sullivan arrived at LEIC in April 2001, plans had already been laid for a 10-week residential program, complete with hands-on experience in mock disasters. “It was a great plan,” he says. “My job was to get it into reality.”

Federal and state grants were secured and the first NFA–with 12 students–kicked off on September 17, 2001, a week after the terrorist attacks of September 11. Hallcox, an LEIC employee who helped lay the groundwork for the forensic academy and then became project manager, says the investigation following the terrorist attacks certainly validated the need for the academy and the up-to-the-minute forensic techniques it teaches. Today NFA is sponsored by the Bureau of Justice Assistance, the state Office of Criminal Justice Programs, the Knoxville Police Department, UT’s LEIC, UT’s Department of Anthropology, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and the Tennessee Medical Examiner’s Office.

Sullivan, who retired last September, says working with NFA was extremely rewarding. He came to LEIC with a resume full of law-enforcement experience, including 5 years at Oak Ridge’s Y-12 National Security Complex and a 30-year career with the military police and army criminal investigation. He says the ultimate compliment comes from hearing NFA graduates say they’ve solved cases because of what they learned in the program. “And that’s a consistent response from our students,” he says.

Not a Common Academy

At first glance, the trio that runs the National Forensic Academy may seem like an unlikely bunch. Hallcox has degrees in political science and public administration (Knoxville ’90,’95). He was about to take a job as an assistant city manager in Colorado when he got an offer to stay at UT and work for LEIC. Lefebvre has a bachelor’s degree in humanities and a master’s in elementary education (Knoxville ’99, ’00). He taught 4th grade before joining the NFA staff. Welch earned a degree in psychology and social work from Ohio University. She graduated in 2002, got married, and started her job at NFA 2 days after her honeymoon.

But their diverse backgrounds may help make NFA click. Although they’re knowledgeable about CSI work, they don’t try to pretend. “We aren’t the experts; we bring in the experts,” Welch says.

NFA has about 40 guest lecturers, including retired UT professor Bill Bass, founder of the Body Farm; Dr. Arpad Vass of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the world’s leading authority on time of death; Dr. Steve Symes of Mercyhurst College, a bone-trauma expert; Dr. Jamie Downs, regional medical examiner with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, one of the nation’s leading forensic pathologists; and best-selling crime writer Patricia Cornwell.

Cornwell Connection

In 2002 Bass called Hallcox and asked if he could bring a friend to sit in on his NFA lecture. That guest was Patricia Cornwell, who sat quietly in the back of the room. At break time, she started asking questions about NFA and its mission. By the time she left Knoxville, Cornwell had offered to help NFA financially. The agency is funded primarily through grant money, but her assistance has allowed the staff to dream big and offer unparalleled training.

Cornwell has raised money for NFA through a book signing, she started the Patricia Cornwell Scholarship fund, and she has donated two Hummers to NFA and pays for their fuel and maintenance. She also helps NFA stage their elaborate hell scenes and provides funding for special projects. Hallcox said her commitment “helps us do things we couldn’t normally do.”

Last summer, Cornwell invited NFA participants to Jamestown, Virginia, where she was involved in mapping artifacts at the original Jamestown Settlement. The students used high-tech laser and robotic mapping equipment to plot artifacts, honing their skills in burial discovery, recovery, and mapping.

Cornwell also gives UT and NFA widespread publicity on her Web site, www.patriciacornwell.com/home.html, and in her novels.

Her 2004 book, The Body Farm, was based on research she did at UT’s Forensic Anthropology Facility. In the book, Cornwell’s lead character, medical examiner Kay Scarpetta, visits UT’s Body Farm and consults with Lyle Shade, a character based on Bill Bass. In Predator, published in 2005, Scarpetta works at a training camp just like the National Forensic Academy, but in Florida. And At Risk, published in May 2006, is set at NFA in Knoxville.

Through all of this, the NFA staff and Cornwell have developed a strong working relationship and, in a way, Hallcox says, “we’ve become her forensic consultants.” The NFA staff helped her with a recent Web-site makeover, and Hallcox and Welch star in the “Forensic Challenge” videos featured on the site.

Hallcox says Cornwell sometimes even turns to them and their experts to double-check the science in her crime novels.