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April 28, 2006
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Va. law enforcement personnel learn techniques in burial excavation

Copyright 2006 Landmark Communications, Inc.
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The Virginian-Pilot

SUFFOLK, Va. — Investigators kneeled around a shallow grave Wednesday and pulled another piece of evidence from the ground. The child's pink bootie had been buried so long a plant root had begun to grow through the fabric.

Ten minutes later, two forensic specialists slowly lifted a small skeleton from the earthen mound in Sleepy Hole Park. "Excavation time at 12:03," called out Pam King' an investigator with Suffolk Fire and Rescue.

The child's skeleton was plastic, the situation fake. But for 21 officers and forensic investigators – most from Hampton Roads – the training exercise approached a real-life scenario, from the initial search for a grave to the painstakingly slow collection of evidence.

The Suffolk Police Forensic Unit is hosting a weeklong burial excavation school for the second time in recent years. Police officials said the forensic training has become increasingly important, especially with the popularity of television shows like "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation."

"You have to have it," said Lt. Debbie George' a Suffolk police spokeswoman. "Juries expect it if it's there."

This year, organizers wanted to give their students a more authentic experience with a more hands-off approach, said Joan Jones, forensic unit supervisor.

So after classroom instruction Monday, organizers handed out crime scenarios and pointed teams of investigators to one of three crime scenes in the wooded campsites of Sleepy Hole Park. Suffolk police planted the evidence last August.

"They put us out here, said, 'Okay, this is your general area. Find it,' " said David Simmons' a Suffolk police officer.

The investigators began by probing the earth – essentially sticking a long steel rod into the ground to feel for loose soil and signs of digging. After that they methodically exposed the grave site by removing a covering of leaves and layers of soil – all of which had to be sifted for evidence. It took King and Simmons' team about 12 hours just to get to the plastic bag that covered their skeleton.

"This is the real thing, except our skeleton was made out of plastic instead of human bone," said Lt. Gary Dove of the Martinsville Police Department.

Dove has worked on at least half a dozen real-life excavation sites with his department's criminal investigation unit. One of the strengths of the Suffolk training program is the chance to work with people from other area departments and learn from their experience, he said.

Jones said she plans to run the excavation school again in 2008. Next summer, she plans to host a forensics junior camp for children in grades 6 through 8.

Full story: Va. law enforcement personnel learn techniques in burial excavation

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