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Budding detectives learn at CSI camp

Published June 28. 2014 09:00AM

Here are a couple clues that this is not your typical summer day camp experience: the Med-Evac helicopter landed, firefighters cut a crash victim out of a vehicle, and a narcotics dog found some pot in the garage.

On the last day of camp, a "body" was found on the floor inside, along with a couple of bloody footprints, fingerprints on the cash register and bullet holes through the walls. A possible "witness" to the crime, Bubba Ray, was a tough interview, since he was more concerned about his lost dog.

Not to worry. Those events were just part of a Crime Scene Investigation camp run by the West Penn Township Police Department last week.

The West Penn officers tipped their caps to the cadre of volunteers supporting the camp Wednesday, which included Lehigh Valley Health Network's MedEvac team, West Penn Fire Company firefighters, the Penn Mahoning Ambulance crew and Soley's Garage, who delivered the wrecked cars.

"This is awesome," said Makayla Kester, West Penn Township. "I'm going to put together a scrapbook all about this week."

During the week, students learned about various elements of crime scene investigation, such as accident investigation and narcotics detection.

West Penn Township Police Chief Brian Johnson told the campers that vehicle crash investigation involves a lot of math. The campers learned how to choose a reference point for their measurements and use a "measuring master" wheel to calibrate the distances.

They also learned about interactions with all the emergency personnel who might respond to an accident, including the MedEvac helicopter flight crew, the firefighters and the ambulance crew. They got to tour each type of response vehicle and learned about the equipment carried inside them.

West Penn Elementary School teacher Michelle Bittner said that she's been impressed with the level of commitment displayed by the volunteers.

"We really do it right in West Penn," Bittner said. "I think the campers are sad to see each day end."

On Thursday, Schuylkill County District Attorney Christine Holman, Chief Detective Dolly Malec and Kurt Montz, who runs the county's Drug Task Force, visited the campers. They explained the steps of the criminal justice system and the cooperation between police departments and the district attorney's office.

"The police are involved from the beginning to the end," Holman told the campers. "There's no easy way to do it."

Later, West Penn Sgt. Melissa "Missy" Mertz and her golden retriever Argus, a trained narcotics detection dog, demonstrated their partnership as Mertz and Argus searched a garage and a vehicle, finding hidden drugs. Mertz said that Argus is trained to find marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin.

Friday, the campers got to showcase all they'd learned as they processed a "murder" scene, complete with a "body" and lots of evidence, including bullet casings, "blood" smears on the floor and wall, bullet holes and fingerprints. Working in teams, they photographed the scene, documented evidence and interviewed witnesses, including law enforcement responders and neighbors, including an unruly gentleman who called himself Bubba Ray (West Penn Officer Jason Lorah).

"How should the photographers begin to work the scene?" West Penn Police Chief Brian Johnson asked the class.

"First you do overall, then midrange, and then close-up," said camper Robert Homyak.

"That's right, now let's get started," Johnson said, and the campers began to process the "murder" scene.

Sandy Steigerwalt, whose granddaugher Terra Steigerwalt was one of the campers, said that Terra had gotten up at 3 a.m. to talk to her grandfather about what they were doing in camp. Leon Steigerwalt, her grandfather, is a police officer.

"He was getting ready for a walk and she was just talking and talking about the camp," Sandy Steigerwalt said. "It's really great to see the kids be so interested about something, and I bet many of them will consider doing something in these fields when they get older."

As the end of camp neared on Friday, the West Penn officers maintained their enthusiasm, although most of them had been working regular shifts for the police department and also filling in at camp as needed. Johnson said that he and the other officers really enjoy the camp. They had done a similar camp through Penn State University/Hazleton campus last year; this year is a first for the local CSI camp, he said.

"And we hope it just gets bigger and bigger, because it's something that the kids really enjoy," Johnson said. "We already have ideas about ways we can expand for next year, maybe add some field trips and more involved lessons for older kids."

"It was a great week, and those kids aren't the only ones who are sorry to see it end," he said.

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