In one episode of “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” Captain Jim Brass shouts to investigator Gil Grissom.
“Hey, look what I found: a knife with blood on it.”
Grissom answers deadpan.
“Hey, look what I found,” he said. “A dead guy.”
About 25 newbie crime scene investigators combed through two faux murder scenes on Tuesday on the Blue Mountain Community College campus, looking for such evidence — plus a lot more. The CSI wannabes, entering their second week of Matt DeGarmo’s forensic science class at the college, found a gruesome scene on a grassy hill near the school’s softball field. A bald man (all right, a dummy) lay there, with four bullet holes riddling his body.
In a second scene inside the forensics classroom, a woman lay sprawled on the tile floor with a knife protruding from her chest. Knocked-over chairs gave evidence of a struggle.
This was a pre-test. The students didn’t know much yet except what they’d seen on TV.
“You’re going to have to put all the pieces together,” DeGarmo instructed.
He grinned at them.
“You’ve seen CSI,” he said. “You can figure it out.”
On the hillside, five students encircled the area with yellow crime scene tape. They donned blue surgical gloves and grabbed evidence bags. They stepped gingerly, looking for clues and placing evidence markers next to shell casings.
DeGarmo, instructor and program coordinator of the school’s recently rebooted criminal justice program, advised them to patiently soak in the scene, assessing all evidence large and small.
“Move slowly in concentric circles from the outside,” he said. “Be extremely observant and take baby steps.”
He stood back and watched and listened.
DeGarmo’s journey to this moment is an interesting one. He describes himself as a D student in his Missouri high school who often got in trouble for skipping class. After graduation, he enlisted in the Army, but was rejected after a physical revealed a heart murmur.
He had already quit his job at an auto parts store, so he halfheartedly enrolled in community college. There, he suddenly found ambition in a criminal justice class that fascinated him. He eventually enrolled in a four-year university and went all in.
“I was making A’s in all my classes,” he said. “For once in my life, I was focusing.”
DeGarmo planned to become a police officer, but after he completed his bachelor’s degree in criminal justice administration, he didn’t stop before earning both a master’s degree and doctorate. He took one detour to reenlist in the Army, when his heart murmur had ceased to be an issue. After attending officer school, he served as a platoon leader for an engineer company that constructed floating bridges.
When working on his Ph.D. at Washington State University, he spent a week inside a Mexican prison at Chiapas, studying the prisoners and their ways of navigating life there.
“The wives and children stayed with the prisoners,” DeGarmo said. “(Mexican) statute says that a man cannot be separated from his wife.”
DeGarmo and his then-wife bought a hobby farm in Joplin, Missouri, and lived there while he spent a year writing his dissertation. They raised chickens and goats, along with 20 stray cats and 12 dogs. Each day, he drove to Starbucks and wrote for eight hours.
That done, he took a criminologist research job at Arkansas State University, studying rural drug markets in the Ozark Mountains. While in Arkansas, he also worked as a reserve sheriff’s deputy.
In this first year at BMCC, DeGarmo said he exposes his students to the criminal justice system with lectures, prison and court tours, panel discussions and hand-on lessons such as the crime scene simulation. He also started a criminal justice club, which has 29 members.
The criminal justice program isn’t brand new at BMCC, but it sputtered when past coordinator Rebecca Blaine got seriously ill. Most recently, another instructor taught remotely. Now the program is full strength again with DeGarmo and two adjunct instructors.
Students may earn certificates (for work in corrections, court technician or law enforcement) and also get an associate of applied science degree that allows entry to law enforcement, corrections or probation and different types of investigation. A board made up of individuals from law enforcement, corrections, law and academia advises DeGarmo. Board members include Pendleton Police Chief Stuart Roberts, Hermiston Police Chief Jason Edmiston, Tribal Police Chief Timothy Addleman, EOCI Superintendent Brigette Amsberry, TRCI Superintendent Troy Browser, Umatilla County Sheriff Terry Rowan, Umatilla County District Attorney Dan Primus and others.
After Tuesday’s exercise, the four teams of students discussed the evidence and turned in their best guess about what happened. DeGarmo revealed more details about the murder scenario. He said a male forensic teacher and a married woman had been giving each other foot massages after class when the woman’s husband stormed into the classroom. When the husband stabbed his wife through the heart, the teacher fled, leaving a trail of syllabi, knocked-over chairs and a National Enquirer. The husband gave chase. Out on the grassy hill, the husband shot his cheating wife’s lover four times. He threw love notes he had found (with two differing handwriting styles) on the body and departed.
At the end of the semester, the students will assess a different crime scene.
Contact Kathy Aney at email@example.com or 941-966-0810.