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December 5, 2007 > Get a clue

Get a clue

Mechanical breakdowns have dogged a professional racing team causing a string of loses and incomplete competitions risking sponsor defections. A despondent race car driver, surly pit crew and a rigged game of cards serves as a recipe for disaster. Sure enough, a "friendly" game of poker in the equipment trailer turns deadly as an excessive number of aces are revealed. When the driver hauling the trailer investigates loud noises, a body is found by itself with bloody footprints leading from the scene.

One of the first groups assembled to investigate the crime scene includes highly trained technicians who meticulously gather information to aid detectives. Popularized by a myriad of television dramas, their work is often a primary key to solving a case. Training for such a critical function relies on technical and academic knowledge, common sense and a lot of experience. Although television shows may solve a case in an hour, the reality is much different. Many schools, responding to the popularity of Crime Scene Investigators (CSI) programs, have included introductory forensic classes in their curriculum. The broad range of skills required for visualizing and communicating information to other investigators and court personnel are valuable corollaries to other academic and fine art classes.

The crime scene outlined above, although realistic, was designed as an exercise for an advanced CSI class at Mission Valley Regional Occupation Program (MVROP). Led by Forensic Biologist Gordon Sanford, students have been learning a prodigious set of skills to not only examine and communicate their findings, but also work as a team. Their task is to provide well documented and reliable findings that will remain solid under scrutiny of a court appearance. Field investigation is supplemented by laboratory work in a modern facility at the new ROP building at Blacow Rd. and Stevenson Blvd. in Fremont. Student team members use measurements and evidence to assemble an accurate picture of the scene including minute physical and biological details. Physical clues are supplemented by biological evidence.

One of Sanford's teams, "X-Ray," carefully surveys and gathers evidence at the crime scene. Team members, Shauna Newberg, Crystal Nielsen, Christopher Ittner, Colleen Stein, Chris Phillips and Joaquin Beza are serious and competent, working quickly and efficiently. Although a planned exercise, there is no room for error and these team members - students of American and Newark Memorial High Schools - know it. Pictures, sketches and exacting measures are taken to "triangulate" the exact location of evidence. The result will be a report outlining all evidence and an analysis of the crime scene suitable for law enforcement action.

Some team members are planning a career in this field while others realize that organizational and technical skills of this experience - observation, logical thought, mathematics, biology, chemistry, art, physics, geometry, teamwork, responsibility and communication - will be valuable in later life irrespective of career goals. X-Ray team member Shauna Newberg, a senior at Newark Memorial High School, plans a career in crime scene investigations. She says that this training has helped her to "figure things out in a logical manner based on factual evidence." At the end of the course, students can become "certified" in CSI skills which can translate into jobs and a career.

Sanford says many of the skills students learn are special, not found in large universities. He notes, "You don't go to Berkeley to get a degree in blood spatter analysis or trace evidence collection." Continuing, Sanford says, "This class is a hands-on opportunity to move forward in a very specialized field."

Forensic Biology is a subject in which Sanford is well versed. Following traditional education in Marine Biology, he was convinced his future lay with marine researchers such as Jacques Cousteau. Recruited in his senior year of college, Sanford spent time in with the Peace Corps in the Philippines studying the effects of dynamite fishing on coral reefs. As preparation for this work, he was sent to Subic Bay to learn about explosives and underwater ballistics with Navy SEALS. From there, six weeks was spent in Air Force jets learning about aerial photography since underwater photography also deals with an environment constantly in motion.

Returning to the U.S., Sanford spent the next five years on Tuna boats figuring out why porpoises were being killed by the fishing nets. In order to understand the physiology of porpoises, he was schooled in the anatomy and morphology of another mammal, humans. When porpoises were killed by the nets, Sanford was the "go to" guy. Through examination of why and how porpoises died, a new net design and strategy was created to release the entangled mammals. Next stop...shrimp farms in the West Indies and Caribbean to discover sudden morphology at these facilities. This led to training in toxicology and poisons. It turned out that the shrimp were suffocating from overcrowding and an overabundance of food that depleted oxygen.

The last ten years prior to working with ROP, Sanford was assigned to Salmon hatcheries in the Pacific Northwest. A database was being built for DNA research and these hatcheries provided an ideal study environment. With his extensive background, Sanford was often called to consult whenever a human body was found in the ocean. He would help Medical Examiners determine what scavengers had preyed on the body, indicating where and how long the body had been in the ocean. Through these experiences, Sanford had morphed from Marine Biologist to Forensic Biologist.

Six years ago, Pete Murchison, Principal at Irvington High School, recruited Gordon who had grown tired of extensive traveling and separation from his family. Watching a significant drop of student interest in science education in the second and third year of high school, the challenge was clear, "We had to create a course to capture their attention." Forensic Science was seen as an answer to this dilemma and with the help of Murchison and the encouragement of MVROP Superintendent Charles Brown and Director of Educational Services Rick Hermann, a forensics course of study was created. In the first year, a class of 12 students was assembled at Irvington High School. The second year the class was offered, two classes were offered and 36 students enrolled. By the third year, classes were available at Irvington, American, Kennedy, Logan and Mission San Jose High schools followed by a district-wide competition. The forensics program has expanded each year to include more students and schools with an advanced course at the new ROP center. Sanford reflects on the success of the forensics program saying, "It's been an exciting run. I have really enjoyed it. If someone had told me in 1976 that someday I would be teaching forensics, I would not have believed it. But, I am delighted with where I am. All my experience has prepared me for what I now do."

Mission Valley Regional Occupation Program
5019 Stevenson Blvd., Fremont
(510) 657-1865,

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