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Thurston’s Mock Crime Scene teams tackle historic 157-year-old cold case 

By DIANNE RUSSELL

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

The death of John Wilkes Booth in 1865 – at the hands of soldier Boston Corbett – wasn’t so much a “who dunnit?” as a “who was it?” Found with compatriot David Herold at Garrett’s tobacco farm, a fire broke out in the barn, Herold supposedly died in the fire and Booth was shot on the porch. 

Over the years, there has been much controversary about whether the shooting victim was Booth. He reportedly broke his leg jumping off the stage after he assassinated Abraham Lincoln, however, the body – alleged to be Booth – didn’t have a broken leg. Ah, the plot thickens.

The task of the Mock Crime Scene investigators was to determine if it was Booth who was shot – or if he perished in the barn fire. The outcome hinged on which body had the broken bone. 

thurstons mock body

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One of two crime scenes the body of John Wilkes Booth, or is it?

A dilemma to be sure – but the razor-sharp skills of Michelle Martinez’ Forensic Class and Club at Thurston Middle School were “on it” during the mock crime scene investigation at Alta Laguna Park on Thursday, April 21.

“The program started as an after-school club and became so successful that it was placed into Thurston’s 7th grade elective rotation for the last five years,” Martinez said. “Every year more than 50 students sign up for the afterschool club and the elective class has approximately 60 students per year. My daughter Noelle and I have co-taught this class together, but she created the curriculum and creates historical forensic mock crime scene simulations each year for students in grades 6-8 to solve.” 

A passion for forensics

As a Laguna Beach School District student, Noelle came up with the idea of a forensic program nine years ago at Thurston. She wanted to give back to the community of Laguna and has taught and led this very successful program. Based on her credentials, she’s the right person for the job. Noelle is a graduate of Baylor University with a B.S. in anthropology and a minor in forensics. She earned her Postgraduate Certificate in Forensic Anthropology at the University of Dundee in Scotland and has an M.S. in Criminal Investigation from the University of New Haven. Currently she’s working on her M.A. in Education with a Secondary Science Credential and is doing her student teaching in science at Thurston. 

thurstons mock arson scene

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Arson scene at Garrett’s farm with authentic fire-damaged items retrieved from a fire in Newport Beach courtesy of the Newport Beach Fire Department

Passionate about forensics, Noelle admitted, “It changed my life. I’ve been doing this since I was a freshman in college. I got more and more into teaching and fell in love with it. During COVID, I did virtual classes investigating cold cases.”

According to Martinez, “The objective of the forensic class and after-school club is to reinforce and introduce students to the skills and knowledge required to understand forensic criminal investigation by analyzing crime scenes, identifying fingerprints, analyzing bloodstain patterns and processing artifacts. The program engages students in teamwork and collaboration to solve an end-of-the-year mock crime scene. The class and after-school club allow students to interact with the content on multiple levels and formats, provide in-depth inquiry and has students make connections for college, career and civic life.”

“I worked on real cases and ran a research lab when I was in school,” said Noelle. “We worked on cold cases and were able to identify seven bodies that were sent home. We have to have respect for the dead, and I pass that on to my students. We’re the victims’ last voice.”

thurstons crime butterfield

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Detective Joy Butterfield and Zoey Bond

This reenactment was part 2 of the mock scene investigation that was started in 2019 with the assassination of Lincoln. Unfortunately, it was postponed for two years due to the pandemic.

Divided into two groups, the students analyzed two crime scenes (based on the two bodies found at Garrett’s farm) to determine which body was identified with a broken tibia. The first crime scene was a man shot and killed with evidence of the assassination of Lincoln. The second crime scene was centered around Garrett’s burnt barn and evidence of a burnt body.

To enrich the experience, during the past five years, Martinez partnered with the Laguna Beach Police Department to help the students during the mock crime scene investigations. 

“This year we also collaborated with the Laguna Beach Fire Department and their Arson Investigator Ian DaCosta to simulate the John Wilkes Booth crime scene at Garrett’s Farm,” Martinez said. 

DaCosta answered questions at the arson scene, which was staged with authentic fire-damaged items retrieved from a fire. He showed students how to collect evidence, secure and label it, and pointed out the importance of marking the things that had probable value.

thurstons mock dacosta

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Fire Investigator Ian DaCosta

Many Laguna Beach Police Officers and Fire Fighters were onsite to offer assistance. Both Detective Joy Butterfield and School Resource Officer Ashley Krotine have participated in the mock crime scenes for four years. First time participant Officer Jeremiah Kennedy fielded questions from the students. 

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Student Charlie Fouhy clearly loved his role. “Being a photographer on the crime scene was fun and exciting. I had a great time being a part of the arson investigation.”

“In addition, high school students – and future forensic leaders – who have participated in the program during previous years come back as forensic experts to facilitate instruction with the younger students in the crime scene investigation,” said Martinez. 

How do the teams gear up for their investigations? “To prepare, they’ve been rehearsing their roles,” Martinez said. 

This mother and daughter team run a tight ship. Noelle encouraged the students to “work it for me” (meaning the evidence) in the two scenes. 

Forensic student Cami Thomas was happy with her assignment. “This was a great experience for everyone. I’m glad that I was able to be a lead detective and lead my team to solve the crime on Garrett’s porch. I have never experienced anything else like this.”

thurstons mock krotine

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School Resource Officer Ashley Krotine assists students

The Martinez’ are fans of historical crimes and always pick them as the challenges. “Would the cases still be tried the same way today? How would we make decisions? It’s interesting to note how technology has changed over the years and how it could be applied to cases now,” Noelle said. “Forensics is always playing catch up.”

In the past, they have staged the Salem witch trials, Lizzy Borden, Sir Francis Drake (which was held at the Ocean Institute and Noelle got her scuba certification just so she could bring up evidence from the ocean), King Richard and Blackbeard.

With the help of LBPD and LBFD

Laguna Beach School District Superintendent Jason Viloria, who has experience with the crime scene program, arrived on the scene to support the students’ efforts. His son, who is now in high school, was in the forensics program at Thurston and his daughter is the current president of the Forensics Club. 

“For this investigation, we partnered with the Fire Department,” Viloria said. “We also partnered with the Police Department and have been working with their officers for four to five years. We really appreciate the level of support from the Police and Fire Departments. You can see the seriousness on the students’ faces as they execute their roles. In participating, students get a chance to use this program as a learning experience. This is one reason that our district stands out. In the future, the key is to do this in other subjects as well, incorporating these types of learning experiences for math, social sciences, science and art.”

thurstons mock bones

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Officer Jeremiah Kennedy brings up bones at fire scene

Just then, LB Police Chief Jeff Calvert appeared to lend his support and encouragement to the students. 

“Working as a lead detective on the John Wilkes Booth crime case was really exciting and fun,” said Ella Viloria. “I was able to apply what I learned in forensics to help solve the crime scene with my team. It was a great experience.”

Teams

Noelle explained how they chose the teams: “The students write down what top roles they would like to play – team leader, medical examiner, note taker and so on, and then we chose the two teams.”

 “I loved it!” said student Emma Petersen. “It was a great experience and I had a great time. I loved that it was also great how we learned many new things in the class and at the scene itself. I would love to do it again next year! Honestly, this was the best field trip I had in a long time.”

thurstons mock aleks

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Aleks Tkachenko in his role as Assistant Patrol Officer

The students concluded at the end of the investigation, based on the evidence provided by the Medical Examiner and Forensic Anthropologist, that the burnt body was John Wilkes Booth because of the broken tibia. The two forensic teams concluded that the crime scene started at Garrett’s porch due to the discovered blood patterns and ended at the burned barn due to the lit matches and arson patterns. The students worked collaboratively and efficiently to process and analyze the evidence to make an informed theory of the events based on the evidence found at the two crime scenes. 

Noelle had only praise for her teams this year. “The students were so dedicated and efficient that they were able to investigate and process the crime scene faster than any team has done in previous years. Incorporating the LB Police and Fire Departments were amazing aspects to this crime scene. The ability to have students learn arson investigation has introduced a new field of forensics that has not been previously implemented before, which the students really loved doing and experiencing. Working with both the fire and police departments to help the students process different types of crime scenes provided students the opportunity to see first-hand how different departments work together to efficiently and effectively communicate and collaborate on crime scenes.” 

Thurstons mock Kelsey

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Kelsey Dearing doing research 

“Working with this year’s group of students to solve the mock crime scene illustrated the great resilience of the students to collaborate together after COVID,” Noelle continued. “Teaching the students in forensic class, club, and through my student teaching has shown me a community of enthusiastic and passionate students. It was a joy to see how the students worked to process the crime scene and apply my teachings in forensics to their different scenarios, despite working different scenes, to come together to solve the death of John Wilkes Booth.”

It appears that the Martinez team enjoys the experience as much as their students.

“Working as a mother-daughter duo for the last nine years has been an amazing journey and blessing,” Martinez said. “To see my daughter’s passion excite other students in the field of forensics has truly been a remarkable experience. Teaching forensics with my daughter has been a wonderful experience for us as well as for the students. They learn both historical events and how to apply science to solve.” 

The Thurston Mock Crime Scene teams applied their knowledge and proved that the old adage, “Just the facts, ma’am,” has merit.