SARASOTA, Fla. (March 14, 2016) – The two bodies were found in a patch of woods at the campus’ north end, their hands and feet bound with plastic ties.
Longtime criminologist and former Metro Detroit homicide investigator Bill Kemper guided his 10 USF Sarasota-Manatee students into the scene past the yellow tape.
“Don’t get too close,” he said as they approached the mannequins tied to pine trees. “I don’t want you to step on any evidence.”
Carefully, the students leaned in for a closer look. Then they picked up pencils and started to sketch the scene.
So began Prof. Kemper’s criminal investigations class.
The mannequins, one male and one female, were positioned west and south. The female was standing, tied to a tree with heavy white rope. The male, also tied, was sitting upright, his legs atop pine needles and leaves. A pair of pruning shears sat on his lap, near where two fingers had been removed. Pillowcases covered their heads.
The “mock crime scene” held Wednesday is a practical exercise meant to look and feel like the real thing. The pillowcases, clothing, even some plants were spattered in fake blood to add realism. Another group of students went through the same exercise two weeks ago.
Many in the class will become police officers, criminologists or Crime Scene Investigators, so it was vital, Prof. Kemper said, that the students undergo training into the meticulous process of evidence collection.
One wrong move – mislabeling an evidence bag or forgetting to use tweezers or gloves to pick up evidence – can jeopardize a prosecutor’s case.
Other evidence-collection tips emerged as well: The students were told to place evidence containing fibers – the pillowcases and rope – into non-fibrous plastic bags to avoid cross contamination. Adding the rope presented an additional challenge. The professor wanted to preserve the knots, which in themselves could be telling, so he instructed the ropes be cut rather than untied.
Also high on the list: crime scene protocol.
“Who’s in charge of the crime scene?” Prof. Kemper asked aloud.
“The medical examiner,” the students replied.
Only the medical examiner can touch the body. Prof. Kemper said the scene was patterned after an actual crime scene in the early 1990s near Detroit Metropolitan Airport. “We never caught the guy,” he said.
After 35 years as an officer, including 25 years as a homicide investigator, Kemper retired from the force in 1994. He’s been teaching ever since. In addition to his adjunct position at USF Sarasota-Manatee, the 78-year-old teaches at State College of Florida and a local private investigator’s program.
For two hours, the students poked over the scene, careful to heed Prof. Kemper’s advice as well as that of his assistant, Sue Ewell, a private investigator who earned a master’s degree in criminology at USF.
The class was invaluable, the students said, because it revealed the kinds of challenges that might occur at actual crime scenes. When the lesson was over, they marveled at its intricacy.
“You have to be so gentle,” said Tawanna Peterson, a 23-year-old senior, who wants to become a criminologist. “You saw how I struggled to pick up that shell casing. There were a lot of little things to remember.”
Another student, Lauren Konkle, a 26-year-old junior who wants to work as a prison counselor, said, “It gives you the feel of an actual crime scene that you can’t get from books. In a way, it made it more real for me.”
“You learn things in the field that you just can’t in the classroom,” said another student, Scott Martin, a senior who wants to go to law school. “I liked the fact that it was hands-on. It made it more real-world.”
Which was the point, Kemper said.
Some things can’t be learned solely from books. “It takes both, a textbook and hands-on instruction,” he said.