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Fingerprinting, sketching crime scenes, searching for remains: High schoolers become investigators at crime-scene camp

MICHELE MILLER | Times Zephyrhills High student, Laila Huffman, lifts a fingerprint during the CSI Summer Camp held June 16-21 at St. Leo University.
Published Jun. 25

ST. LEO — The metal lab tables were stocked with blue disposable gloves, brushes and fingerprint dust. On one side of the table sat soon-to-be high school junior Laila Huffman with her crime-scene kit. Her instructor, retired Pasco County Sheriff's Capt. Robert Sullivan, tasked her with removing a smudgy fingerprint off a whiteboard.

She placed a piece of clear tape on the finger print, rubbed on it, then slowly removed the print and placed it on an index card. In a real investigation, it could be used to match a person to a crime scene. Sullivan reminded her to initial the card to preserve the chain of custody for when evidence is used in court. Huffman, a Zephyrhills High School student, and 17 others were participating in Saint Leo University's six-day, crime-scene investigation camp from June 16-22. It's the camp's second year. The session paired the students with four of Saint Leo's faculty members, who have worked everywhere from Florida law enforcement agencies to an FBI evidence response team. Students came mostly from Florida, with a few from the northeast part of the country. The camp exposes them to criminal justice as a career field and also helps get students interested in Saint Leo. Four campers from the first camp have enrolled at Saint Leo for the fall.

Instructors taught students to lift fingerprints, sketch crime scenes, search for human remains and other forensics-related skills.

The students stepped into the role of investigators and learned that the work is more than what they see on TV crime shows. It requires long hours, careful collection of evidence and working outside in the hot sun, said camp instructor Joseph Cillo. Cillo, a former defense attorney, is an assistant professor at Saint Leo and teaches classes on serial killers and the U.S. Supreme Court. The camp is meant to be an amusement park of learning, he said, and he likes to think of himself as a tour guide rather than a lecturer. "They watch a lot of TV," Cillo said. But crime shows and news shows don't always accurately capture what the investigative and criminal trial process looks like.

At camp, they start with the basics. One task required them to measure the distance between small yellow markers set out by the instructors. They used tape measures and created baseline sketches outside in a campus courtyard. On the hot, sunny and humid day, an argument ensued among the students about whether they should measure in inches or centimeters. They needed to be precise so they could use the measurements later to model the crime scene.

Despite the sweaty conditions, Huffman was still excited.

"It's really cool when you get a good fingerprint," Huffman said, peering at the note card with her newly lifted print.

She's watched crime-scene investigation shows her whole life, though she knows that what takes place on TV isn't the same as forensics in real life. She's long admired the lab expert Abby Sciuto, a character from the hit show NCIS.

The gore of some forensic work, like seeing rotting bodies, doesn't scare her.

"It's disgusting, but it's life," she said.

She wants to pursue something related to forensics in college and for a career, but isn't sure what. She's still exploring. She said it would be cool to work for a big federal agency, like the FBI.

After a week of day-long workshops, instructor Cillo had a goal for the students.

"We want to fatigue them intellectually and physically," he said.

Contact Sarah Verschoor at sverschoor@tampabay.com. Follow @SarahVerschoor.

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