Bloody crime scenes turn CSUS students into super sleuths

Jacob Gonzalez stooped down to measure the body surrounded by bloody footsteps in the bedroom decorated with stuffed animals.

“He possibly shot her from here. She rolled, then he shot her in the face,” Gonzalez said. “We are definitely going to have to collect the bullet casings, the gun and get some samples of the blood to verify it actually is her blood.”

The body and blood weren’t real, but the crime scene was loosely based on the murder of 8-year-old Leila Fowler in Valley Springs in 2013. Stephen D’Arcy, an instructor at California State University, Sacramento, prefers to base crimes in his Advanced Criminal Investigations classes on real-life scenarios.

A little more than a year ago, the crime scene would have consisted of a roped-off area somewhere outside Alpine Hall at Sacramento State, where criminal justice classes are held. Now crime scenes are set up in a former computer lab set up to look like a family home with a bedroom, kitchen and living room.

“Students who didn’t even take Criminal Justice would come and watch,” D’Arcy said of the outdoor lab. “It was always weather dependent. One semester we were rained out, but you have to process a crime scene even in the rain.”

Division chairwoman Mary Maguire and administrative support coordinator Donna Vasiliou scoured thrift stores to furnish the three-room home. Other members of the faculty and students donated furniture.

“It’s not a luxurious setup,” D’Arcy said.

Cameras peer down at groups in the lab broadcasting their efforts to classrooms and an adjacent conference room, where D’Arcy lays out crime scenarios and where “suspects” can be interviewed with the aid of an overhead microphone and camera.

On Tuesday, CSUS seniors wearing paper booties and masks moved through the crime lab in teams, taking photos and collecting evidence. Their assignment was to analyze the crime scene and prepare a report on it, complete with photos, diagrams and a summary of a videotaped interview of a suspect.

Next they had to decide which evidence to test, review the autopsy report and present enough evidence to support an affidavit for a search warrant and, later, an arrest warrant.

“It’s a competition in that it’s graded,” D’Arcy said, waving hands stained by stage blood. “The entire semester has been leading up to processing this crime scene.”

Gonzalez and the rest of Team 1 assessed the murder scene in the crime lab, carefully stepping over bullet casings before stopping to analyze the body. Danny Santiago took photographs of the scene, while Natalia Espino gathered evidence, Liliana Ochoa took notes and Matthew Lazzaretto guarded the door to ensure no unauthorized person entered.

“Being exposed to scenarios like this opens our eyes to be able to deal with these situations,” said Gonzalez, an intern with the CHP.

The team huddled together after its investigation, discussing the evidence and whether the members believed the testimony of the boy on the video, played by D’Arcy’s grandson. They unanimously thought the boy’s testimony and body language made him appear guilty.

“The person kept looking up and to the right multiple times and giving inconsistent statements,” said Lazzaretto, who is interning with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Gonzalez agreed: “After interviewing the brother … it was clear to me he could possibly be our main suspect,” he said. “His body language was way too calm for it being right after his sister was killed. The reasonable person would be crying and be in disbelief. He was very mellow, very calm.”

The team decided to proceed with the investigation by testing the firearm for fingerprints and having the suspect’s hands swabbed to see if he had fired a gun recently.

D’Arcy’s classes have analyzed a number of hypothetical crime scenes over the years.

“We have done sexual assaults, a homeless man murdered under the bushes outside,” he said.

The former San Jose captain of detectives and Placer County undersheriff said he went to a Raley’s store to buy bones for a dismemberment scenerio.

“They looked pretty realistic when I use my stage blood,” he said.

With close to 1,600 students, Sacramento State’s Criminal Justice program is the second-largest of its kind in the country, according to university officials.

D’Arcy said less than 10 percent of the students in his Advanced Criminal Investigation classes go into traditional law enforcement. He said some go to work with government agencies such as child protective services. Others pursue careers as private investigators or take jobs in the private-security sector. Some, he said, become lawyers.

Diana Lambert: 916-321-1090, @dianalambert