As many high school teenagers spend their summer break relaxing and having fun, a small group of students used their free time another way — dusting fingerprints, analyzing blood spatter patterns and studying forensic clues.
These campers were learning how to solve crimes as part of Saint Leo University’s inaugural Crime Scene Investigation (CSI) Summer Camp.
The camp gave high school juniors and seniors a hands-on and behind-the-scenes look at evidence collection, documentation and preservation of evidence through a variety of mock crime scenes.
About a dozen rising high school juniors and seniors from Texas, Pennsylvania and Georgia, as well as Florida, took part in the weeklong camp at the university’s main campus on State Road 52 in St. Leo.
The camp was led by Saint Leo faculty members with extensive experience in the criminal justice system, as well as a host of experts in criminology. The camp offered a realistic glimpse at the hard work and critical thinking needed to locate, preserve and analyze evidence.
Activities included casting foot and tire impressions, and learning about the use of insects in crime scene decomposition.
Campers also learned how to locate and dig up human remains. And, they learned how to conduct interviews and interrogations, and to present their findings.
The camp also included a field trip to the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office Forensics Services Section to learn about latent prints and blood spatter, tour an evidence locker, and view a vehicle being processed for evidence by forensic experts.
The camp culminated in three mock crime scenes, where students had to apply the knowledge they had learned throughout the week. The exercise included collecting and documenting evidence, and then presenting it to a mock grand jury. One such scenario required students to process a car used in a simulated kidnapping and homicide.
Many campers hope to someday work in a crime lab or law enforcement.
Alona Beadles, a rising high school senior from Atlanta, wants to be an FBI agent.
Leesburg’s Amanda Phillips, too, dreams of working for the agency.
Others, including Bradenton’s Vincent Gulbrandsen, want to become a forensic or behavioral analyst.
“I have always wanted to do something with solving crimes in some way,” said Gulbrandsen, who’ll be a senior at Lakewood Ranch High School.
Learning body decomposition and blood spatter patterns fascinated him most, along with the various techniques used in documenting a crime scene.
Said Gulbrandsen, “I really enjoyed learning about blood splatter…and how you can track which way the killer went with a weapon, or, you can track where the murder takes place, depending on the direction of the spatter.”
Charlotte Braziel, a Saint Leo criminal justice instructor and retired Tampa FBI agent, is the brainchild behind the CSI camp.
At the FBI, Braziel was senior team leader for the Tampa Evidence Response Team and a certified instructor of crime scene management, case management, presentation skills and defensive tactics.
As Braziel taught students crime scene techniques, she often referenced her past experience in the field, such as working high-profile cases on John Gotti Jr., and the Gambino organized crime family.
To drive home a point in other discussions, Braziel would mention other widely known cases, such as the O.J. Simpson murder case.
“They like the fingerprints. They like the blood spatter. They like the stuff that’s on TV,” Braziel said of the experience of teaching the campers.
In one midweek lesson, Braziel stressed the importance of crime scene photography, and how investigators and detectives need to take at least four basic photos — long-range, medium, close-up and close-up with scale.
Two other key takeaways from the photography lesson — you can never take too many photos; and, never, ever delete a photo. “Every time you go somewhere, you take a photograph,” she noted.
Real-life investigations not much like TV
In an adjacent classroom, Dr. Bobby Sullivan, another Saint Leo criminal justice instructor with more than three decades of policing experience with the Pasco Sheriff’s Office, pointed out the nuances of rigor mortis and lividity, and how forensic entomologists use maggots from a dead body to establish when a person died, and whether or not a body was moved.
Sullivan would certainly know, with his lengthy background as a former detective sergeant and commander of the narcotics, intelligence, street gang, and counter-terrorism units.
“Establishing the time of death is huge in an investigation, because now we know approximately when this person died…and we can figure out what (our suspect) was doing at 2 o’clock yesterday afternoon,” Sullivan told the campers.
Saint Leo assistant professor Joseph Cillo, meanwhile, gave students a different perspective into the criminal justice system.
Cillo, a former Los Angeles defense attorney and an expert on serial killers and mass murderers, as well as the U.S. Supreme Court, detailed the importance of forensic evidence collection in building an airtight criminal case.
In one demonstration, Cillo scattered handfuls of Milk Duds on a classroom floor — telling students to imagine each as a piece of evidence and a piece to a puzzle in crime solving. “You have to put them together to make a clearer picture,” Cillo said, “and you have to do it sufficiently so that defense attorneys can’t tear your evidence up.”
Students discovered pretty quickly that what’s shown on TV dramas, like Criminal Minds, NCIS and CSI are, for the most part, embellished and sensationalized.
They also come to find out associated jobs within forensics oftentimes include long hours and tedious work, not to mention they’ll be placed in the center of unsavory crime scenes.
Sullivan explained what forensics work is really like can be a slap in the face to a lot of kids: “They’re watching CSI, and they’re seeing women running around in miniskirts and high heels, carrying guns and interviewing bad guys, and locking up the bad guys. They’re not seeing that you never see a bad guy, you never see a suspect — you are so focused on the crime scene and the evidence that the only time you may see a suspect is at trial when you’re testifying. You never talk to him, you don’t interview him, you don’t get in shootouts with bad guys; most forensics people don’t even carry guns, so, that’s kind of the wake-up call,” he said.
Though the assortment of TV crime dramas millions watch aren’t quite the real thing, campers did observe some likenesses, such as the fingerprinting technology used to nab suspects.
“It’s not like TV, but occasionally you’ll see something similar, but it’s not the same,” Philips said.
But, that realization didn’t deter some campers, including Gulbrandsen, who still want to work in criminology.
After the camp, the high-schooler is even more sure it’s the route he wants to take: “I’m very interested in going into the forensics field,” Gulbrandsen said.
Published July 18, 2018