BTEC’s criminal justice Crime Scene Investigation team members Ashley Denney (left) and Kasey Tolley prepare for a practice scenario Monday at the school.
Photo by Ed McCoy
Sonjia Haxton is the third member of the BTEC CSI team that won the state competition and is going to the SkillsUSA national competition. She could not be at Monday’s practice.

Two Virginia State Police forensics experts set the stage Monday morning for a team of criminal justice students to practice procedures in preparation for a trip to the SkillsUSA National Leadership and Skills Conference next week in Louisville, Ky.

Ashley Denney, Kasey Tolley and Scotia Haxton earned the trip after winning the SkillsUSA Crime Scene Investigation (CSI) Virginia competition in April in Fredericksburg. That win followed their district win in the winter when they were one of the two Botetourt Technical Education Center (BTEC) teams in the district contest.

The three graduated from James River High School three weeks ago and have continued to train for the national CSI competition— including Monday’s new scenario— a vehicle used in a homicide.

State Police Forensic Technician Tommy Morris and State Police First Sgt. W.L. Jennings Jr. from the Bureau of Criminal Investigation office in Salem were working with the students Monday as they prepared for what will be a rigorous competition.

The practice is not unlike what the students will find when they get to Louisville. During the national CSI competition, contestants will be directed to a crime scene and briefed as to the situation.

The contestants will, as a three-person team, process the crime scene. They will legally search for, properly collect and remove evidence of the crime.

One member of the team will be required to lift a latent fingerprint from a pre-selected item of evidence.

After the scene has been processed, the contestants will write their report, draw a crime scene sketch and mark their evidence.

All within 30 minutes.

The weeklong (June 19-23) SkillsUSA National Leadership and Skills Conference is a showcase of career and technical education students. More than 16,000 people— including students, teachers and business partners— are expected to participate in the weeklong event, according to the SkillsUSA website.

Students will be competing in dozens of career and technical education competitions that range from 3D visualization and animation to welding.

For BTEC, this is the first Criminal Justice team to qualify for the SkillsUSA nationals, instructor Lisa Shaffer said.

The Criminal Justice program, which offers courses over two semesters (both with dual enrollment credits through Dabney S. Lancaster Community College), was started just six or seven years ago, and it’s continued to grow and is now full time.

BTEC’s CSI team members Ashley Denney and Katie Tolley got training help from State Police forensice experts First Sgt. W.I. Jennings Jr. (left) and technician Tommy Morris during a practice to prepare for next week’s national SkillsUSA CSI competition. Photo by Ed McCoy

While Shaffer came to the teaching position from a part-time spot at Colonial Elementary, it is her years in law enforcement that prompted the call from the school administration asking her to start the program. She worked in both state and federal probation and for the FBI before deciding the time commitment was to tough on her family.

One unit is on CSI, Shaffer explained. It includes the basics of collecting evidence. She then has Chris Levering, a forensics specialist with the Roanoke City, come in and go more in-depth about investigating a crime scene.

Then she tries to find students interested in competing in the SkillsUSA contest.

As it turns out, Denney, Tolley and Haxton were reluctant recruits— until they got into it.

“Then we fell in love with it,” Tolley said.

She at first had her eye on nursing school, but is instead headed to Virginia Commonwealth University where she’ll go into the criminal justice program.

Denney may have some family influence involved in what she plans as a career choice.

Her father is a State Police captain, and she’s going into the criminal justice program at Radford University.

Haxton, who handles the evidence collection for the team, is going to Virginia Western Community College to start her studies in physical therapy.

The students seem to have clicked as a team, Shaffer told the Botetourt School Board when the team was recognized during last week’s regular board meeting.

“We like to have fun,” Tolley said, “and this is fun, but we are serious about it.”

The young ladies liked it enough they had to skip their prom at JRHS because of the state competition.

Denney said the team came together randomly from the six students who decided to participate in the districts.

That’s worked out well. With Haxton collecting evidence and interviewing the first officer on the crime scene, Denney takes the required photos and measurements, and Tolley does the required crime scene sketch and measurements.

First Sgt. Jennings said he and Morris are able to provide tips to the team, give them hints, and set up a crime scene for the practice.

They’re able to help with notes, photos, evidence recognition, collecting and packaging evidence.

“What’s important is knowing what is evidence,” Jennings said. That applies to some evidence that may not mean much now, but could be important later.

Processing a crime scene’s not the only score that will count in the nationals, Shaffer noted.

The students will have orientation, a skill-related written section and even judging on their resumes.

They’ll have to have their own crime scene kits that include materials for conducting the investigation and taking fingerprints; they’ll need handcuffs, a flashlight, and a camera. They’ll begin by demonstrating or explaining activities prior to conducting a crime scene search; explain and demonstrate crime scene photography; properly search, collect and remove physical evidence; draw a crime scene sketch with measurements, symbols and labels; dust for collecting latent fingerprints; release a crime scene properly and legally, and be professional.

The work includes using academic skills in specific areas of math, science and language arts.

While the students have just 30 minutes to process a crime scene at the nationals, Jennings is quick to point out forensics work is no CSI TV show. He’s had crime scenes that have taken 12 hours to investigate.

— Ed McCoy