Bare bones training

Published 9:03 pm Saturday, April 30, 2011

Training: Law enforcement officers from across the region spent three days in Suffolk last week training in excavation techniques. They searched for and excavated two dummies that were buried last year.

Police training uncovers excavation techniques

Sleepy Hole Park bustled with law enforcement last week as they searched the woods for bodies.

But the officers didn’t find any human remains — just dummies that Suffolk’s forensic unit buried six months ago as part of a training to help the officers learn how to properly excavate bodies.

“We just try to train them and show them the proper techniques to recover human remains,” said Joan Jones, forensic unit supervisor.

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The forensic unit, made up of Jones and three forensic technicians, Shane Everett, Megan Woody and Bert Nurney, has put on the training since 2003.

Twenty-two officers and law enforcement agents from all over Hampton Roads participated in the sessions Wednesday through Friday.

They had to sign up for the training that starts with a classroom session and culminates in the park, where they break into teams to put what they learn into practice.

The fieldwork began Thursday, when the teams were given criminal scenarios created by Woody and Everett.

“I tried to give them what you would get in the real world,” Everett said.

Most of the time, he said, police get a call from a person who thinks a body might be buried somewhere but does not know specifics.

So, Everett didn’t give his team much to work with except a general area in which the body might be.

Both Woody’s Team Bones and Everett’s Team Olya were given hints as to where their bodies might be hidden, but in order to find the burial ground, they had to use methods they learned in the classroom.

The teams’ first tasks were to mark off their evidence area.

“We walked through it and decided what area to focus on,” Officer Matt Burnham, with the Norfolk Police Department.

To mark the crime scene, the team members searched the surrounding area for evidence, starting in the center and spread out until the evidence stopped.

Both teams said the best way to make sure nothing is overlooked is to use your hands and eyes.

The members had to push aside piles of leaves and mounds of dirt and collect every piece of evidence they could find.

From there, the teams probed the ground for impressions, feeling for dirt that had previously been moved.

Everett said there is a definite difference in the way displaced dirt feels compared to dirt that has never been touched.

“The deeper you go (into the dirt), the more it looks different than everything else,” he said.

The members of Team Olya ran into a roadblock in their excavation plan when they mistook an old fire pit from the campground for the burial site.

Once the members found the burial site, the excavating began.

The teams worked for hours to uncover the bodies from the ground.

Norfolk Police Department forensic investigator Eric Henderson said the methods used are not difficult.

“It’s not hard, just tedious,” he said.

In a real excavation, Jones said, it is critical that the bodies and surrounding evidence are not damaged during the process.

“We don’t want them to damage the remains any more than they are already,” she said.

After about four hours of work, both teams had uncovered their bodies. Team Bones found their victim to be a 12-year-old boy whom they believed had been electrocuted. They found electrical tape and several wires buried with him.

Woody said she was proud of her team’s hard work.

“I think they’ve done wonderful,” Woody said of Team Bones. “They’ve worked really well together.”

Team Olya’s victim was a 22-year-old woman, a Belarus citizen who came work in Suffolk for a summer.

The team members were not told exactly what happened to their victims because they needed to make a presentation on what they believed happened.

The training aims to be as realistic as possible. Jones said the dummies even had cow’s blood on them when they were buried in order to encourage extensive damage by insects.

“It’s one of the most realistic training sessions you’ll get,” said NCIS special agent Brian Bozin.