Solving the murder: Students investigate mock crime scene

November 08, 2016

By Nina Mastandrea

How did this happen? When did it happen? Who did this? Are you certain of that?

Those were just a few of the questions about 25 students in Instructor of Criminal Justice Tracy Hoilman’s Criminal Investigation and Interrogation class asked both of themselves, and of each other.

The class spent the morning of Friday, October 28, investigating the death of dummy Gale Sample in the Robb Center for Career Exploration.

The scenario was based on a real crime scene Granite Falls Police Captain TJ Bates investigated.

Bates, a Lees-McRae alumnus and police officer for 21 years, regularly returns to campus to give students a hands-on lesson on how to assess and properly handle a crime scene from all angles.


Over the course of the fall semester, Hoilman’s class has been immersed in criminal investigation techniques; the mock crime scene was their chance to put what they learned into action.

Before the scenario, students were given the chance to choose one of several roles integral to the exercise. Some of those positions included ‘Police Information Officer’, ‘Media’ and ‘Investigator’ among several others.

Students measured the distance of the body from several corners of the room, and documented evidence found with numbered notes before carefully placing them into brown bags labeled “EVIDENCE.”

Outside, students worked as patrol officers and kept the scene secure.

Bella Lopes, a sophomore and one of the responding patrol officers on the scene, stood at the inside edge of the iconic, bright yellow tape, creating a log of everyone that entered, and exited, the property.

“It is really interesting and fun,” Lopes said. “Though it can be stressful at times.”

Standing on the other side of the tape, two journalists, seniors Rachael MacRae and Dylan Hanes, called out questions and demanded answers.

What is her name? Is it true that it may have been a murder? Is there a murderer on the loose? The people need to know! They both shouted at Sydney Harrison, who was playing the part as a public information officer.

“It’s fun and different to see how other roles play an integral part of a larger investigation,” Harrison said.

An hour later, the students gathered in a classroom to debrief and explain what they believe happened to Sample.

During the meeting, Bates said that the exercise was not for the students to find out what happened, but to understand the roles and certain tasks given to officers during cases like the one they witnessed.

“They did an outstanding job,” Bates said. “We have some very inquisitive minds.”

For Bates, the event, which has been held almost every year—sometimes by other officers—for the past several years, is not only a way for him to teach students what he has learned over the years as an officer, but as a way for him to learn, too.

He said that he will watch as students try new things, and look at a problem in a certain way Bates never considered before.

“I take those ideas and methods and apply them in the field,” he said.

The mock crime scene scenario is one of several similar simulations students both across campus and programs have been able to partake in.

One of the main focuses at Lees-McRae is to offer experiential learning opportunities for all students no matter what program they are in.

Earlier in October, students in the May School of Nursing and Health Sciences worked hands-on with performing arts students standing in as “victims” in the school’s first mock disaster scenario.

The mock crime scene involved all of Hoilman’s students, giving each the opportunity to discover first-hand what careers in those positions can be like.

“It is one thing to read about the information but it is another to see it and to participate in the things you learn about in class. Many students prefer and learn more by hands on activities or demonstrations,” Hoilman said.

She believed that this years’ mock crime scene was the best one to date and was proud of the students who took their roles seriously and used their critical thinking skills.

“In the field of criminal justice (as well as other fields) this is such a valuable tool,” Hoilman said.
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