- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 22, 2006

STATE COLLEGE, Pa.

The dummy never had a chance, stabbed in the chest by a burglar inside the home. Days later, a gaggle of official-looking people hovered around the body lying face down on the floor. They scribbled notes on legal pads, looked for fingerprints and discussed how to take samples from the pool of blood around the body.”You guys have to remember to look at all the alternatives,” forensic scientist Robert Shaler said suddenly over the loudspeaker system, startling the investigators. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you.”

This is Mr. Shaler’s crime-scene lab, where, twice a week, the director of Penn State’s forensic science program turns the old home in the middle of the sprawling campus into a three-story, high-tech classroom to teach students about his profession.

“It’s great,” Mr. Shaler said recently from the basement of the lab housed in Spruce Cottage. “I’ve always thought that this is the way you teach students how you investigate crime scenes. Get them acclimated.”

The class started this semester under Mr. Shaler’s direction, and the cottage is home to one of just two such classrooms at a university, according to Mr. Shaler and Earl Wells, president of the American Society of Crime Lab Directors. The other lab is at West Virginia University.

Most rooms at Spruce Cottage are wired with expensive audio and video equipment so Mr. Shaler can observe students from a basement monitoring station that looks more like a security hub at a large office building.

Mr. Shaler often wears two chunky headsets at the same time — each one monitoring a floor of the house. He will pipe in over the intercom system to answer questions and give tips, often unsolicited.

“The very first time I heard him, it was like, ‘Whoa, where did that come from?’” said Ashley Dart, 19, of Lancaster.

It’s quite a change of scenery for Mr. Shaler, who retired last year as chief forensic biologist at the New York City medical examiner’s office. There, he led efforts to identify victims of the September 11 attacks.

Now, he’s training aspiring forensic scientists who have grown up watching investigative crime dramas on TV such as “CSI” and “Law and Order.” The shows have boosted enrollment in forensic science classes nationwide.

In Spruce Cottage, like on the TV programs, the crime scene is a star of the show.

Built in 1890, the cottage has been used for everything from a sorority house to headquarters for campus security to a faculty home. Forensic science took over the house last year, when it was renovated to its current specs.

At first glance, the house is oddly situated against the backdrop of the modern brick-and-glass buildings towering behind it.

Two recent crime scenes — one on each floor — were set up by Mr. Shaler days earlier. The crime scenes begin as soon as students walk in the front door of the cottage.

Mr. Shaler scripts and videotapes a scenario and then sets up a crime scene matching the video.

One video, for example, involves Mr. Shaler being stabbed in his living room by an intruder. With the cameras off, his “body” is replaced by a life-sized dummy on the floor; cow’s blood, which has been decontaminated, has been strategically placed or smeared around the house as evidence; and “suspect” footprints are put inside and outside the home.

Then, the investigation begins.

“It seems pretty realistic to me,” student Jennifer Skrzypczak, 25, of Erie, Pa., said as she measured the room’s dimensions with a tape measure. “But it was a little creepy walking in the first time.”

After the students examine the house and conduct their investigation, they are shown the video of the “crime.”

Each week, Mr. Shaler’s students learn a little more about how to handle and process a crime scene, from being the first police officer on the scene, to dusting for fingerprints, to more mundane tasks like taking room measurements and where to place the news media.

A schedule outlines future class topics that sound like a TV crime show spin-off: “Time of Crime: Blood Drying Time” and “Ballistics Evidence: GSR” — or gunshot-residue analysis.

Mr. Wells, who is also a forensic science lab director for the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, said such class experiences help aspiring forensic scientists be aware of the realities of the profession.

“They would have a distinct advantage to have that kind of formal experience,” he said.


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