Who dunnit? Students work to solve murder in forensics class

Published Saturday, November 3, 2018
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On the Case

ON THE CASE – Jennifer Peek’s criminal forensics class recently worked to solve a murder in her class. Alvord is the only school in the county to offer the class. Messenger photo by Richard Greene

A severed hand leaves a small blood trail from the body outline in the middle of the otherwise shiny tile floor.

Just a few feet from the gruesome scene, Alvord senior Christina Thomas takes measurements of a footprint left in a pile of dirt, while Maggie Wicks take notes and draws a diagram of the area.

“The smallest little bit can matter,” Wicks said. “You need every bit of evidence you can get.”

On this day, they are trying to crack the case of what happened to a 38-year-old Hispanic female dismembered and left deceased. The case is the latest assignment in Jennifer Peek’s criminal forensics class.

Making Notes

MAKING NOTES – Maggie Wicks and Christina Thomas take measurements and sketch out the scene to try to solve a murder case in their criminal forensics class. Messenger photo by Richard Greene

Peek started the class in 2011 in Alvord before leaving to take a job in Decatur. She returned this year to restart the class, the only one of its kind in Wise County.

“They learn to collect evidence, log it in correctly and the chain of custody,” Peek explained. “I’ve had students before that have gone into forensic psychology and crime scene investigations as well.”

During class, students learn the proper procedures for handling evidence along with studying blood splatter and the different characteristics of fingerprints. They have also dove into study profiles of serial killers.

“This class is awesome. We do a lot of hands-on things,” said Maley Mader. “It’s made me question the field from time to time. It’s very interesting.”

Classmate Kinly Walker added: “We learn a ton each and every day from fingerprints to case summaries. This is our second crime scene that we’re solving.”

For Wicks, the class helps her relate to her father’s work as a Fort Worth homicide detective.

“He comes back and talks about his cases. Some of the stuff people do blows my mind,” Wicks said. “It’s cool to get to do my own version of it. It’s cool to be able to go home and talk about it.”

The crime scene is set up in the class’ physical evidence collection lab. Written on the white board at the front of the room are a few details on the case in two lists.

The initial briefing gives the age, sex, weight, height of the victim, scars and tattoos, along with helpful notes – a neighbor had noticed lights on at an odd time and called police, the husband was at work and the children were visiting grandparents.

The other list gives scene information – time of death, 27 hours ago; body was in full rigor mortis; there were no eyewitnesses; a .357 Winchester magnum casing found along with a hand saw; the victim was fully clothed with no signs of sexual assault but was dismembered; and there was no sign of forced entry.

“I do my homework,” said Peek about the reality of the case details.

As students filter around the lab, Peek reminds them to make all their sketches and detail all the evidence. A few students take pictures, while others use tape measures to get various measurements on the blood splatter and the one footprint.

“Figure out the order of events and think about a motive,” Peek said.

The students work carefully and look for the tiniest detail, knowing time is against them.

“You have to make sure you have all your measurements. Once you start bagging evidence, it’s gone,” Mader said. “Mrs. Peek is really big on getting pictures.”

Christina Thomas packaged a portion of the dirt surrounding the footprint on the scene to see if it had a clue.

“It may tell us where they were before they were in this room,” Thomas said.

“It’s a really fun class. You have to think a little outside the box.”

While gathering evidence, the theories on motive and also who carried out the gruesome murder start to arise. They bounced theories off each other after investigating.

“I’m thinking it was a hate case. I’m thinking someone was not on this lady’s good side,” said Ryan Robinson.

Wicks’ theory differed.

“It was a jealous old boyfriend. There was no sign of forced entry, so she definitely knew them,” Wicks said.

Some theories differ, but the class reaches a consensus that the victim was shot first and the murderer took their time to severe the hand.

All that is left is find out who did it, and then it’s time to move on to the next case.

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