Students head out into field for final exam at mock scene

Central Carolina Technical College student Michelle Light has never been on the scene of a crime. She has never observed and collected evidence from a real crime scene or held back the media as it probed her for information for the next big story. But on Tuesday evening, Light, along with 10 of her classmates, got up close and personal during her final exam with a mock crime scene set up at Patriot Park by adjunct professor and former Sumter County deputy Tony Horton and officers with the Sumter County Sheriff's Office.

Horton said the students in the criminalistics/forensics review class have been learning about how a crime-scene unit operates when collecting and handling evidence and the procedures they need to follow to properly process a scene. They have also learned about keeping the media and the public out of the crime-scene area and how to properly brief the media on the occurrence. So Tuesday, the classroom text, Horton's lectures and presentations all came to life in a wooded area in the local park.

"I told them, you've been listening to me flap my gums for a while now, so it's time to see who has been paying attention," Horton said jokingly. "They haven't been told what the scenario is, but they were told to choose a team leader and figure out who would do what job on the scene."

With the help of the sheriff's office, Horton set up a scene and came up with a story that the students would eventually need to piece together as they collected evidence on the scene in the allotted two hours given to complete the final exam.

Here's the scenario: Brothers John and Jason Dickson, 38 and 29 years old, respectively, have been missing for 18 months. An officer patrolling the park, which has been closed for two years after the city could no longer keep it up, found what looked like a body and asked for a crime-scene unit to report to the park. The body seems to have three gunshot wounds, and the students should find a second skull once they observe the scene. Further investigation from the students led to the location of the murder weapon, which was thrown in a nearby bush and registered to Ed Thompson - John Dickson's brother-in-law, with whom he had previous arguments.

Even after spending class time talking and working on sketches, how to collect and process evidence and how to properly handle a crime scene, the students had no idea their final exam would be a live mock crime scene.

Light, who admits the team made a few mistakes on the scene Tuesday evening, said the hands-on experience definitely put what they've learned in class in motion. Horton and deputy Lee Monahan - who participated in the exam as the officer who found the body - said the students were nervous but very thorough and did well throughout the scene. Light, the team leader for the students, said after finding out they would process a mock crime scene, they quickly got to work with preparing and organizing for the exam.

"We mostly focused on step-by-step procedures on what everyone should do in each role," Light said. "It definitely put it in perspective for me. We were able to realize how easy it was to make mistakes, like we only found one shell casing. We found three bullets but only one casing. So it was a learning experience, and I think we learned a lot about handling evidence at a crime scene. It was a fantastic, hands-on learning experience."

Light will complete her studies at CCTC and graduate with an associate degree this week and plans to look into getting her bachelor's degree at Morris College where she can move forward in starting a career in forensics.

Horton said he and Monahan remember having to process mock crime scenes and what they learned from the experience. Throughout the two hours of processing the scene, Light said some people weren't always sure what they should be doing, and as team leader she stepped up and directed the team on what should be done.

"We trained together and had scenario training, and to put it all together, it's like hand in glove," Horton said. "We learned from mistakes during training, and when we went on the job, we knew what to do because we already had hands-on experience. And for me, I'm a hands-on kind of guy. You actually have to put it in play for me to see. This is where you want them to make mistakes, so they can be prepared for it at a real crime scene."

BY RAYTEVIA EVANS - Thursday, July 31, 2014 , photography by MATT WALSH

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Date/Time Published:10/9/2014 2:08