At CSI Academy, students to learn tools of trade


Morgan Thompson acts as a murder victim in a mock crime scene for students at the CSI Academy of Florida, including from left to right, Denise White, Brett Dickman and Crystal Spradlin, at the academy at 12787 US Hwy 441 in Alachua on Thursday.

Erica Brough/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Monday, December 10, 2012 at 7:35 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, December 10, 2012 at 7:35 p.m.

ALACHUA — In the Elvis room, pool tables, broken bottles and ripped clothing are spread across the room. During the night before, a murder or rape might have taken place.

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Morgan Thompson acts as a murder victim in a mock crime scene for students at the CSI Academy of Florida, including from left to right, Denise White, Brett Dickman and Crystal Spradlin, at the academy at 12787 US Hwy 441 in Alachua on Thursday.

Erica Brough/The Gainesville Sun

It's the job of the students in the CSI Academy of Florida to find out what happened and who did it.

Mike Thompson, a private investigator who previously worked for the Alachua County Sheriff's Office, said the academy in Alachua provides an opportunity for students to train for a new job and for law enforcement to potentially hire them to help preserve evidence. The school is licensed by the Florida Department of Education's Commission for Independent Education.

The academy held a weeklong course for law enforcement this past week. It will hold a one-week course open to everyone starting in January and plans to add a seven-week course early next year.

The cost for the seven-week class is a little more than $11,000 and covers tuition, books, meals and a background check, while the one-week courses cost about $1,400. Training dollars are available to eligible people through FloridaWorks. The academy is also looking to offer private scholarships, said Debra Mongiardo of CSI Academy.

The one-week course provides an overview of what investigators do, while the longer course is for those interested in a career in criminal investigation.

Judy Brown, an administrator with CSI Academy, said the academy encourages students to also join the police academy. CSI Academy also will help students search for a job after they complete the program.

“You don't have to be a rocket scientist, but it helps if you pay attention to details,” Brown said.

Robert Rush, co-founder and a lawyer in Gainesville, said the goal is to send out people who know what they are doing.

He said he and a few others decided to start the school because he believes crime scene investigation is a skill lacking in criminal investigators.

“Learning how to be a crime scene investigator is similar to being an electrician or a mechanic,” he said. “You can't do it online. If you're a carpenter you have to swing the hammer.”

He said many times law enforcement doesn't have enough funding or open positions for forensics and that he hopes the program will encourage students to go through the police academy and pursue careers to fill the gaps.

Ben Tobias, spokesman for the Gainesville Police Department, said it wouldn't necessarily give an applicant a better chance at a job, but if he or she graduated from the police academy and had a forensics background he said it would be a plus.

He said officers selected for the forensics track almost always come from within GPD and have worked for them for more than two years. Currently, GPD has five officers and Sgt. Martin Krpan in the investigative unit, Tobias said.

CSI Academy has a 28,000-square-foot facility and seven acres to create real-life crime scenes.

One room is a courtroom with wooden pews lined up for the next lesson. Another is “The Blood Room,” as Thompson calls it, with bright white walls and floor. A roll of white butcher paper rests in a stand with a white styrofoam head on top ready to be beaten in with a hammer or kicked with a boot to simulate a beating or murder. Another scene is a bedroom, another a small apartment with windows from which to take prints and sheets to look for trace evidence.

“Not much is simulated besides a dead body,” Thompson said. For the unofficial first session, he said the academy used his son's girlfriend as the murder victim.

The walls seem to be decorated with abstract art, but a closer look reveals blood splatter patterns. Another wall is home to mug shots of criminals, including one who burned off his fingerprints in an attempt to remove himself from the evidence.

Thompson, who began his career with the Alachua County Sheriff's Office in 1976 and retired in 2004, said that when he became a private investigator, he saw how important the evidence was in determining cases. In law enforcement, the mindset is to catch the criminals. When he became a private investigator, he said he saw how it was equally important to find and preserve the evidence to keep the criminal in jail once caught.

“For 27 years, I only heard and saw one side of the story,” he said.

Throughout the program, crime scenes become more and more complicated, clues not as easily found and twists with new elements added to the story, Brown said. By the end of the program, the crime scene will be across multiple rooms and even outside on the 5-plus acres of grass and woods to create outside crime scenes. Thompson said he hopes for rain so students can really know what it's like in the real world trying to preserve evidence with limited time and elements in the way. He said he can't wait until he makes them go look around at night.

Participants can expect fake blood by the gallon, broken windows and trace evidence to find with blacklights.

Thompson said the purpose of the program is to give participants a skill set they wouldn't be able to get anywhere else except on the job.

“(It's) to show them it's not always like on TV,” Thompson said.

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