Forensics program attracting crime-solvers at Point Park in Pittsburgh
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Edward Strimlan stands in an office where a woman has found her boss on the floor, his head bathed in blood.
The coordinator of the forensics science program at Point Park University, Dr. Strimlan plays the role of the woman. Jessica McCardell, a junior from Baltimore, is the investigator. The boss is a dummy.
"When did this happen?" Ms. McCardell asks.
"A half-hour ago. He was unresponsive."
Writing notes on a clipboard, she asks, "Did you move him?"
"No, the guy on the phone tried to tell me how to do CPR but I was scared."
Dr. Strimlan has heard that response among thousands in a rich history as a forensics investigator. After 21 years in the Allegheny County medical examiners office, he left as its chief investigator two years ago to teach full time because "I was having so much fun teaching" part time, he said.
Overseeing mock investigations in the university's crime scene house -- a cluster of rooms on the fifth floor of Academic Hall -- he has 52 students in the second year of the program.
Television programs such as CSI [Crime Scene Investigation] shows on TV have spurred growth in forensics studies programs nationally, but Point Park's is one of the few hands-on academic crime scene laboratories in the country. The Cyril H. Wecht Insitute of Forensic Science and Law at Duquesne University and West Virginia University are the next closest of about a dozen labs nationwide.
Television does no service to what is intrinsically a fascinating field, Dr. Strimlan said.
"One show will focus on one case, but as an investigator you can be on seven scenes in a day," he said. "It takes 40 people six months to do what [actors] accomplish in 50 minutes.
"This is a good field with multiple opportunities. Lab work is wide open. There's more and more testing being done. There are hospital labs, forensics labs and even private labs."
In a recent class of eight students, most professed a love of science and figuring out conundrums.
"I love puzzles and solving things," said Kileigh Williams, a senior from Marion, Ind. "At first I was thinking criminal justice, but during my sophomore year, we drew crime scenes and it was too much fun."
"It was either forensics science or culinary arts," said Patricia Gooden, a senior from North Versailles. "I did a job-shadow in the medical examiner's office, and that helped me make my decision."
Eric Brandt, an Ellwood City senior, is a science lover and problem solver who eschewed criminal justice because "I couldn't be a good attorney because I can't lie, and I knew if I were a cop I'd be the cop who had to sit waiting for a speeder."
Nathan Brown started at Kent State University in chemistry and biology but, after a lecture on how to link crimes to suspects, he said, "I looked for the closest place that had this major" to his home in Imperial.
Dr. Strimlan assigns small teams to set up each crime scene so the students are all familiar with only one. They change the rooms several times a semester.
During a recent class, he gave them the 911 report on each crime scene room before setting them loose with clipboards and tape measures.
"Living room: 911 gets a call from an hysterical mother whose son is not responding. He is 9. The medics come. You have the mother and a younger brother to question. In the bedroom, you have a sister who came over to find her brother not responsive. She's an RN and realizes he's cold. Witness is the sister. In the office, you have a call from a worker that her boss fell. The question is: Did he really fall?'
"Remember, measure from the evidence to the wall," Dr. Strimlan said. "Not to the sofa because it moves. The wall doesn't move."
Dr. Strimlan provides only so much of the story. It's the students' job to provide the rest.
Ms. Williams and Ms. Gooden enter the living room to see a dummy on the floor, blood stains between it and a sofa. A wadded shirt on a corner cushion is stained with cleaning chemicals and blood -- made from corn syrup and red dye. Bottles of Pine Sol and Glass Plus sit on a table nearby. A bottle of wine on the coffee table is a red herring.
The dummy breathed a fatal dose of the cleaning chemicals.
In the bedroom, where Mr. Brandt and Nathan Brown measure the distance between walls and a face-down dummy on the bed, a rope hangs above the dummy's head. What looks like a suicide at first is an auto-erotic accident. The victim's sister discovered him and unhooked his head from the noose. The students who rigged that room set the victim's legs at a tilt to indicate that rigor mortis had set in.
"I ask them questions" when they set up the scenes and when they investigate, Dr. Strimlan said. " 'Could they fall that way?' 'Does that make sense?' "
The blunder of eager beginners is to see irrelevant items as important, such as the wine bottle. "I kicked a golf ball into a crime scene once because I had almost stepped on it, and my students were all over it" as possible evidence.
His students aren't the only ones who use the crime scenes. Journalism students, who as professionals won't have access to real crime scenes, have used it to learn subtle questions to ask investigators. Drama students designed sets for the forensics students to process.
One of the biggest mysteries is why the forensics science students at Point Park are overwhelmingly female -- 47 to 5 -- especially considering the common perception that science does not attract many women. Dr. Strimlan said it might be because women and men play equal characters in TV forensics shows. It's the only guess in the class.
"Not a clue," said Matt Coleman, a junior from Crafton. "I'm probably the least science person here, but I love figuring stuff out."
Correction/Clarification: (Published November 2, 2012) The Cyril H. Wecht Institute of Forensic Science and Law at Duquesne University has a crime scene investigation program. A story Monday about a similar program at Point Park University incorrectly said it and West Virginia University had the only ones in the region.
First Published October 29, 2012 12:00 am