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CSI: ONU

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Ada, Ohio, is many things; quaint rural village, exclusive provider of the footballs used in the Superbowl and home to the only Tundra south of Lambeau Field. What it is not, is a hotbed of criminal activity. But when the police raid a house full of hostages a stone’s throw from campus, it can certainly look like one.

Fortunately, the raid and subsequent investigative activities were not real, but a joint training exercise between Hardin County law enforcement and Dr. Dennis De Luca’s BIO 259 (Forensic Biology 4) course.

Each semester, De Luca, a former DNA analyst for the Cuyahoga County Coroner’s Office and current associate professor of biological sciences in ONU's Getty College of Arts & Sciences, stages a mock crime scene at a University-owned house for his students to investigate. This semester’s scenario included an added twist of introducing the law enforcement element.

Whereas forensic scientists must be meticulous in their actions so as to not disturb any evidence that may be crucial to solving a crime, the police have no such luxury. Speed and distraction are their keys to a successful outcome. To see what happens at a crime scene between the actual crime and when they arrive at the scene provides students with a unique learning experience.

“The students have the opportunity to see how we handle stuff inside and how the process works,” said Hardin County Deputy Sheriff Scott Holbrook. “For instance, when we use distraction devices (flash-bang grenades), they leave burn marks and singe marks. Now they can say, ‘Hey I know what that is.’ They are going to see that things get moved and obviously for a crime scene you want nothing to be disturbed or touched. It’s just not realistic when we have to come in.”

The police contingent comprised officers from the Ada Police Department, Hardin County Sherriff’s Office and the Kenton Police Department. For them, the training scenario included a 911-call saying there was a hostage situation in a residence suspected in narcotics trafficking. Inside the house, 10 forensic biology students played the parts of drug dealers and hostages, adding to the realism of the exercise for both parties.

Senior forensic biology majors Liz Arpin and Caleb Worley spent two weeks setting up the crime scene and also participated in the exercise. They, along with the rest of the student actors, wore hearing protection to mute the effects of the flash-bangs, which according to Holbrook, are “brighter than the sun and just below the decibel level where permanent hearing loss begins.” Even with protection, Arpin marveled at the intensity of the experience.

“We heard the first one go off, so we knew the police were coming. Then, all of a sudden the second one went off, and I jumped out of the chair like my heart stopped,” she said. “It shook the whole house. It blew both doors completely open.”

After the raid, a team of five crime scene investigators began the arduous task of processing the crime scene. To understand how painstaking the process can be, before even setting foot inside the house, the team spent about eight combined hours taking photographs and measurements of the exterior of the house and yard. Once inside, the team collected and tagged all of the evidence left at the scene, which was then analyzed by other class members serving the role of the crime lab.

In addition to being a unique learning experience, the joint exercise between ONU and area law enforcement may be a harbinger of things to come.

A federal study by the National Research Council released in February 2009, called “Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States. A Path Forward,” provides a blueprint for improving our nation’s ability to solve crimes and improve public safety with better training across forensic science, law enforcement and the judiciary.

With a forensic biology program, a law school and a new working relationship with area law enforcement, ONU is poised to lead in this national undertaking similarly to how the T.J. Smull College of Engineering is actively meeting the president’s challenge to increase the number of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) teachers in our high schools.

De Luca envisions a three-part plan with ONU developing a research facility for forensic scientists to develop new tools to solve crimes, a working crime lab to process evidence from real crimes in Ohio and, finally, a training center for law enforcement.

“Training is very important for law enforcement. They have to keep up to date and be able to see how changes in technology require them to do things differently,” he said.

De Luca hopes to continue building the relationship established this spring by inviting more area law enforcement professionals to attend events on campus. In the past, ONU has brought in experts to conduct seminars on topics such as DNA collection, fingerprinting and gunshot wounds. He’s already speaking with area law enforcement about another exercise this fall.

“They thought it was very successful. They’d like to do it again,” he said.