Death Investigation School teaches cops to 'think dirty' - WKOW 27: Madison, WI Breaking News, Weather and Sports

Death Investigation School teaches cops to 'think dirty'

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By Bob Schaper - bio | email | Twitter | Facebook

GREEN LAKE (WKOW) -- It's a boot camp for homicide detectives, the place where they learn the secrets of their trade.

In a two-part special report I spent a day with students and instructors at the state's Death Investigation School in secluded Green Lake County.

I learned that it's nothing like the crime-dramas you see on TV. Here, it's all about procedures, checklists and not jumping to conclusions. And it all starts with "thinking dirty."

"Three bullets in the body and then one by the steps," a student tells a packed classroom. "We knew we had three more to find."

Taught by the Wisconsin Department of Justice, hundreds of students have come here from all over the state since 1976 to learn the gritty details of murder. It's a two-week course, and there's always a waiting list.

"One thing that you can't make a mistake on is when you respond to a death scene," Special Agent James Holmes said. "And that's what the training allows for, to lesson mistakes that occur."

Holmes works for the Division of Criminal Investigation within DOJ. When he's not solving murders he coordinates the class. Most of the work is in the classroom - until halfway through the second week.

"Today is a special day and it's very well received by the students, in that they get to go out and actually go outside for seven death scenes that they go through relatively quickly but gives them an idea of what they may encounter when they're out on the street at some point," Holmes said.

Not far from the golf courses, the marina and the restaurants, the death scenes have been created on the grounds of the Green Lake Conference Center. We followed one team of six students as they puzzled through various scenarios.

In one scene, involving an infant death, Holmes gives them the setup.

"It's a 911 dispatch call for a non-breathing infant, so you're the first ones here," he said.

While one officer interviews the crying mother, others go through the house. Along the way, Holmes gives them pieces of advice.

"Remember, if you treat this like it's a 27-year-old female that's been stabbed to death, you're going to cover everything," he says.

He also has a lot of questions.

"What would become important as far as photography in the kitchen area?" he asks.

"Food sources," a student says. "Formula."

In an upstairs bedroom, using a doll, the officers ask the mother to show them what happened.

"And is that exactly how she was laying, Patty, her head was turned in this direction?" an officer says.

Holmes stresses the need for checklists and following procedures.

"You did an excellent job in regard to, okay, how did you find the baby?" Holmes said. "So after she says this is how I found the baby, then more photographs are taken."

In a scene like this, determining how the baby died and whether foul play was involved, will depend on the result of the autopsy and lab tests. But afterwards Holmes tells me investigators should approach every scene with a skeptical eye - no matter how innocent the witnesses seem.

"If we go in thinking dirty, that every death scene is a homicide until we prove otherwise, then we make sure cover everything," he said.

Soon after, the class moves on to another scene. In this scenario a husband calls 911 to report his wife's suicide. He says he was watching television when a gun went off in the bedroom. But right away the students notice that things don't add up.

"The brass is in kind of a funny place," an instructor says. "If she had been holding it to her head, the gun would have been canted down a little bit."

Also there's blood in the sink and shower, as if somebody was washing up, and a note from the victim to her sister saying she's looking forward to an upcoming visit.

"Perhaps the biggest challenge is that every scene is so different and you have to walk into each scene not making any assumptions about anything," said Special Agent Christina McNichol.

And that includes the most violent crimes, like this one, stumbled upon by a hunter in the woods. Special Agent Tom Fassbender challenges the students to look beyond the obvious.

"Did you look close at the wounds?" he asks.

"I did look at the one on her face," the student says. 

"But the body?"

With dozens of murder investigations under his belt, Fassbender knows the ropes.

"The body's gonna tell you a lot of times what happened, what you need to look for," he said. "I would never want to say that it just becomes a job. But does it get easier, do you get more used to it? Yeah."

Fassbender says many of the death scenes are based on actual crimes. And sometimes there's more than one victim. After examining this scene, one of the students found evidence of a second body just under the surface.

After all the evidence is collected the students gather round and Fassbender peppers them with questions.

"Where was she killed? Was she brought here and placed here? Was she killed here?"

I asked Fassbender what's the most important learning point in the two-week school.

"The number one thing is that you are doing this investigation for the victim," he said. "The victim can't talk anymore. So you're going to become the voice of the victim, and the victim's loved ones and family."

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