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College Near Northeast Iowa Uses 'Forensics House' to Teach CSI
By Jillian Petrus, Reporter
PLATTEVILLE, Wisc. - Tucked away 30 miles north of Dubuque, there's a small white house surrounded by fields and farmland. Inside the home, a horrific unsolved crime is about to be re-lived by a group of about 15 college students.
"If you walk through it, it just takes on a whole different kind of feeling and profiling is a mix of science and intuition," Dr. Sabina Burton, Professor in the Criminal Justice Department at UW Platteville in Platteville, Wisconsin.
Burton worked for many years in California as a criminal profiler effectively putting herself in the minds of serial killers and socio-paths. Now, she teaches criminal justice students how to do the same.
"This is why profiling is not for everyone. It's very hard, very draining to put yourself in the shoes of a killer," Burton says.
The criminal justice and forensic investigation programs at UW Platteville use a special "forensic house" to teach their students evidence collection, examination and crime scene analysis. Very few programs have this type of realistic lab setting available to their students.
Platteville engineering students built the home, everything inside has been donated by the community, and all the rooms are outfitted with surveillance cameras. This allows the professors to step back and watch their students walk through the crime scene and evaluate them. In a field next to the home, there is also what you might call a "pig cemetery". Local farmers donate their dead hogs to the program. The professors then bury the pigs and will later dig them up for the students to examine body decomposition.
"The walls are all washable, so you can have complete blood spatter in any of the rooms," said Ron Jacobs, a criminal justice undergraduate at UW Platteville.
On this day, the students are examining the rape and murder of Jimmie Sue Smith. In 1981, it's believed an organized serial killer murdered the 18-year-old Texas girl at her family home.
"It's not always as nice or as fun as you see on TV," said Jessie Kolar, criminal justice and business undergraduate. "When you're actually in the field out there doing it, it's a lot different."
Burton and her students both say the hands-on experience is critical. They need to learn all the right techniques, because one slip could destroy an entire case.
"I need to make sure I'm doing things this way and not this way, so I can help get the perpetrator and not mess up the crime scene," said Stephanie Metke, an undergrad in criminal justice.
Dr. Burton also makes sure her class understands the difference between Hollywood crime solvers and reality. Some of the students even have a name for the misconception.
"It's called the CSI effect," laughs Metke. "The truth is everything in their crime labs, we don't have yet. It's really cool. We wish we could do fingerprints in an hour. We'd love that!"
The national backlog on processing Forensic DNA evidence in most crime labs is about three to six months. To reduce this, law enforcement agencies are now looking toward contracts with private companies in addition to their own labs
But this demand also makes forensics and criminal justice highly sought after careers. Despite the emotional pressure that comes with the job, most of these students say they look forward to eventually working their first real crime scene.
"I'm already getting into so much of the academic portion, but to be able to go out into the field, I can't wait," said Miles Eichholtz, a criminal justice undergrad.
In 2009, the federal government and all 50 states passed laws requiring law enforcement to collect DNA samples from suspects, anyone under arrest and offenders convicted of any crime. This has contributed to DNA backlogs nationwide.
"It's a lot more than what you can do in forty-five minutes on TV," said Jacobs. "TV makes everything look easy and fast."