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Murder in a nutshell

NCLL class investigates miniature crime scene model

It’s not often that you have the chance to step into the shoes of a forensic investigator. But on Wednesday evening, attendees of a Northern Center for Lifelong Learning class had an opportunity to think like detectives and piece together evidence found by investigators in a real-life triple-homicide case.

While the case took 10 years to figure out at the time, participants were able to solve it in just an evening thanks to the help of class instructor Dave Mastric, a consultant to Northern Michigan University’s Criminal Justice Department who worked for over a year to create a miniature representation of the crime scene and the evidence found by investigators when they arrived.

This type of crime scene representation, known as a nutshell, is used to educate budding investigators in NMU’s criminal justice program, which is the only program currently known to use nutshells in the nation, Mastric said. Nutshells can be important tools for teaching investigators, he added, as it’s a way for them to get experience surveying a crime scene and learn what to look for.

“The best tool for teaching an investigator is a crime scene. But there are inherent problems if you bring an unseasoned investigator into a crime scene to try to teach them how to process it,” Mastric said. “The first among those is corruption of the evidence on the scene. So what we’ve created here is a static crime scene that we can use over and over again because the facts never change in our particular crime scene.”

Mastric said the nutshell was inspired by the work of Frances Glessner Lee, an honorary female police captain who combined her knowledge of crime-scene investigation with her talent for building miniatures from the 1940s until her death in the 1960s.

“She was an expert dollhouse crafter, so she took this skill and she started building what she called nutshells,” Mastric said. “And what they are, are crimes in a nutshell. The purpose of these nutshells was to instruct investigators in what they needed to be paying attention to at the scene of a crime.”

While Glessner Lee’s nutshells weren’t replicas of actual crime scenes, she took aspects of real crime scenes and investigations to create nutshells that were designed to teach investigators important lessons, Mastric said.

“The reason that they’re all make-believe is because she had specific lessons that she was trying to teach,” Mastric said. “All of her crime scenes have twists, turns and red herrings in them because her crime scenes are designed for the seasoned investigator. She’s trying to teach them about the pitfalls of what to look for, what to not get caught up in, what’s important and what can mess up your investigation.”

Unlike Glessner Lee’s nutshells, Mastric’s own nutshell scene is based on a very real crime scene, designed with the beginning investigator in mind.

“A beginner is going to need a set of instructions, what are they going to look for when they come into a crime scene,” he said. “So professor (Bob) Hanson and I started researching crime scenes and we found a crime scene that has a specific set of lessons that could be taught from it.”

Once Hanson and Mastric identified this crime scene, Mastric pored over thousands of pages of photographs, interviews and other evidence from the scene to construct an accurate representation of it at the time investigators arrived.

This highly-detailed, dollhouse-sized representation was thoroughly inspected by class attendees, who formed groups, sharing ideas and exchanging information much like a real-world investigative team.

Teamwork is valuable in investigations, Mastric said, as different individuals notice different things — some noticed an overturned coffee table that landed in a suspicious manner, while others noticed minute representations of blood spatters found at the scene, and yet others saw two telephones that were taken off the hook.

“Sometimes these tiny little details are going to make a huge difference. Sometimes the details are so small that you do not see them with the unaided eye,” Mastric told the class as they examined the nutshell.

After each group had an opportunity to look at the nutshell and discuss what they saw, Mastric presented the class with additional information about the incident, complete with autopsy reports and photos, background information about the victims, blood-types found by investigators at the scene, and information from interviews with various parties, letting the facts of the case slowly unravel for the audience.

“(Investigators) have to try to figure out if the story they’re being told matches the evidence that’s in the scene,” Mastric said.

The evidence found in the nutshell model combined with this information allowed the class to piece together what had happened at the scene, revealing a conclusion that didn’t match the stories told by interviewees — but did match the physical evidence.

“This is one of the reasons we chose this particular scene — because the evidence in the scene is going to tell us a pretty darn good story,” Mastric said.

As the class wrapped up, Mastric and class participants discussed a wide range of topics relating to the crime itself, as well as the nutshell and the way it will be used in the future — the nutshell was used in a criminal justice class for the first time at NMU this semester and Mastric hopes to develop a semester-long course that will take students through all of the evidence, step-by-step, challenging them to learn the complex realities of solving a murder case.

For more information on Mastric’s miniature murder scene, visit https://alittle-weird.com/

Cecilia Brown can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 248. Her email address is cbrown@miningjournal.net.

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