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UT Forensics burns car, Watt ex-home
Future CSI investigators from around the nation train on controlled burns in Farragut


Tomorrow (Friday, July 23), graduation is scheduled for the ninth class of the National Forensic Academy. The academy is overseen by the National Forensic Science Institute at the University of Tennessee. This 10-week, intensive course brings students together with experts in the field of crime scene investigation.

The graduates will take what they learn back to law enforcement agencies all over country. What they learn is real-life CSI.

During 400-hours of training, students spend much of their time in the field, not in a classroom. On Friday, July 16, fifteen students, along with instructors, the program’s coordinators and firefighters from Rural Metro descended upon Farragut for the academy’s arson scene investigation class.


A week earlier, the former Watt home at 12716 Kingston, scheduled for demolition, was prepared for their class. The empty house was filled with furniture and five rooms were burned for the mock crime scene. It would be up to the students to determine how and why the fires began. Instructors turned eyewitnesses to provide a real life scenario for the students to study the crime scenes, careful to preserve them.

On the same property that day, students watched while a car, containing animal remains, was set aflame. Dr. Joanne Devlin, a firefighter, anthropologist and instructor at the academy was on hand to help control the fire.

After the car cooled, Devlin would teach the students how to locate and identify the remains. Students watched how the fire consumed the vehicle, then listened during a short instruction about one of Knox County’s accelerant sniffing dogs, Maude, a black lab trained by Mark Sells. Leading instruction that day was Knox County fire investigator Mike Dalton.

Like the flames in the car fire, the National Forensic Academy’s reputation has spread quickly throughout the law enforcement community nationwide. And graduates are helping solve crimes, often leading investigations, nationwide.

Project manager Jarrett Hallcox, who wrote the grant that secured the money to begin the program, relies on relationships he’s formed throughout Knoxville for resources for the class. It helps him find property, like the home in Farragut, for training. “It’s great that people are willing to help us,” he said. While many in the community aren’t aware of the academy’s existence, Hallcox said law enforcement agencies in the area know what the academy is accomplishing and support them. It’s no surprise then that the academy was initially the brainchild of Knoxville Police Chief Phil Keith, who contacted UT about the possibility of starting such a program three years ago.

To date, the academy has graduated 129 students from 33 states and has caught the attention of cable television producers and national and international publications. Special agents from the U.S. Army recently visited the class for some special training that Hallcox said could be utilized in the war in Iraq.

The attention is warranted. Students are instructed in every major aspect of crime scene investigation including: crime scene management, photography, latent fingerprints, crime scene mapping, trace evidence, arson and bombs, bullet trajectory, blood splatter and behavioral analysis.

For their death investigation curriculum, students visit the state medical examiner’s office in Nashville. They spend time in the lab, learning how to process their own evidence. A useful skill, Hallcox said, especially when labs are backed up.

A highlight for many students is the time spent at the Outdoor Anthropological Research Facility, or the “body farm.” There, the students receive training not available anywhere else.

They work with donated human cadavers and are taught by the facility’s founder, Dr. William Bass, world-renowned in forensic anthropology. At every graduation, one student is presented an award of excellence named for Bass.

Though the academy is not your typical college course, the learning experience is. Students are quizzed and take both an entrance and an exit exam (this one administered by the FBI’s evidence recovery team) and can get college credit for their time at the school. Students come from all walks of life and experience levels and are encouraged to learn from each other, Hallcox said.

Entrance to the program is not easy. Applicants must work in law enforcement and be recommended by their employers who must state why their department needs a member of their staff trained by the academy.

For $6,500, the students learn hands-on by experts. They live at The Reserve at Westland but must pay for their food. In many cases, Hallcox said, the fee is paid through state grants and by the represented law enforcement agency.

A few graduates, Hallcox said, leave the academy to become leaders in their departments and some have served as expert witnesses in criminal court cases.

Many stay in touch after graduation and a few have been reunited on the job. In one particular case, former students collaborated to solve a multiple-state auto theft ring.

For Hallcox, hearing of former students’ accomplishments is a further validation of his choice to lead the program. With a Masters degree in public administration, he had considered pursuing employment as a city manager. “I wanted to go to a city and help that city out. But here I’m really helping out more people in cities everywhere.”

Someone whose academy-learned skills will be helping out Tennessee is Stephanie McClure, a detective in the Sevier County Sheriff’s Department. Voted president of the class, she said her time at the academy “couldn’t have been any better.”

She notes the camaraderie that’s formed among the students and appreciates the expertise offered in the instruction. “Law enforcement constantly changes,” she said. “You can only keep learning and keep getting better.”

McClure said she most enjoyed learning the complicated analysis of blood splatter. As for choosing law enforcement as a profession, McClure, who grew up with a law enforcement officer for a father, said, “This is what I’ve always done and I have no desire to do anything else. Either you’re cut out for it or you’re not.”

Cassie Difiore is an intern from Florida State University who’s attending the academy partly to see if crime scene investigation is something she is cut out for. One of the academy’s youngest participants, Difiore said, “We get to do things here that we learn about in school but may not get to see for years down the road.”

Gary Smith traveled all the way from Roswell, N. M. to attend the course. He came to the academy via an invitation from his lieutenant and is one of the first two delegates representing New Mexico. This is Smith’s first time in Tennessee and he has enjoyed the experience, visiting Dollywood and whitewater rafting on the Ocoee. He notes the geography and culture changes but said, “No matter where you go, law enforcement is the same.” Smith is a criminal investigator with the state police who has worked 115 crime scenes. The academy, he said, has improved his skills but stresses how the course would be invaluable for first time investigators who need to be taught the correct way to collect and process evidence. “You need more than a confession these days. It’s coming down to forensics,” he said. “It’s where you win or lose cases.”

 

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