Elementary, my dear camper

July 10, 2014 

Sheriff's Det. Greg Taylor goes over a mock surveillance video with a group of young campers in June.

It’s been a while since his dad noticed the ad for the summer camp in the local Agoura Hills newspaper. Still, the experience made an impression on Max Bartolomea, now 17.

“It was a murder in a hotel room,” the Oak Park high school senior recalls, chuckling. “The body was gone but the room was still bloody. I loved it—I remember thinking it was exactly how it looked on TV.”

Now in its fifth year, the Los Angeles County Sheriff Department’s Teen C.S.I. Camp, complete with mock crime scenes, has evolved and expanded, but its impact on kids remains.

“It’s fun and they learn a lot,” says Deputy Scott Rule, who devised the camp curriculum in 2009 at the behest of Agoura Hills city officials. Then a member of the Juvenile Intervention Team at the Malibu/Lost Hills Sheriff’s Station, Rule has since taken the show to the sheriff’s Altadena station, where he’s now posted.

“It’s like getting to solve a mystery.”

Los Angeles County has summer diversions aplenty, from art camps at LACMA to nature adventures at the Natural History Museum.

But the sheriff’s Teen C.S.I. Camp has been a sleeper, locally available until now only through the City of Agoura Hills, where municipal officials inspired by crime scene investigation TV shows first floated the idea to the sheriff’s department.

“I actually had one of my own kids go the first year,” recalls Sheriff’s Lt. Jim Royal. “They did a mock murder. There was a preliminary lecture on technique, and then they did forensics—we had our print person come out, and the kids got to take notes and try to figure out who did it. After that first session, it was standing room only. It was a really great idea.”

Learning the tricks of the trade in Altadena.

Since then, sheriff’s officials say, the 5-day camp has steadily added features, though it always revolves around a single “crime.”

“That first year, we did a homicide in a party setting,” recalls Rule. “We used a mannequin for a victim and set it up in a room at a park that the city rented for parties. The murder weapon was an alcohol bottle.

“But we’ve done all sorts of things—one year we had a shooting victim, another year we had a stabbing. Once I even had a bar fight with a pool cue as a weapon. This summer in Altadena, it was a baseball bat.”

Each crime scene, he says, is carefully seeded with clues, from fingerprints to footprints to footage from security cameras. Then the campers, who range in age from 11 to 16, try to deduce whodunnit.

“We don’t make it graphic,” adds Rule, noting that the “victims” are rarely female and never children.

“We want it to be easy and solvable, not gory and bloody.  We use plastic knives and the one year we did a gunshot victim, we used a plastic training gun. But every one of those cases are like scenes our detectives have been on—murder scenes, assault scenes, thefts, burglaries.”

The aim, he says, is to put forth a positive image for the department and to engage adolescents with technology that intrigues them (polygraphs, he says, are a guaranteed crowd pleaser.)

But, he adds, the camp also introduces teens to the range of potential careers in law enforcement, from crime lab work to prosecutions.

“I always try to find a local attorney to come out and play the District Attorney, so the kids can present their case and see what kind of charges they can get.”

This is the first year the camp has been offered at the Altadena station, Rule says. A $75 June session drew 23 youngsters—enough to prompt the addition of a second session from August 4-8.  (For more information, click here.)

Meanwhile, in Malibu, sheriff’s officials say they had to tweak the curriculum slightly because the local forensic specialists who usually help guide campers were so occupied with real crime that they couldn’t participate without an overtime budget.

Instead of a C.S.I. Camp, the sheriff’s offering will be called “Secret Agent Camp” this year. The camp will run from August 11-14, and will be available through the City of Agoura Hills for $74. (Details are here.)

“We have our own fingerprint [technician] who works here already, and I supervised the crime lab for years, so we will still have a forensic element—it just won’t be as technical,” says Malibu/Lost Hills Lt. David Thompson.

Deputy Alicia Kohno, who has succeeded Rule, promises that the camp will still include all the usual, popular features—a murder, a crime scene, fingerprints, footprints, lie detectors.

Good, says Bartolomea.

Though the teen never aspired to a career in law enforcement—according to his mother, he’s headed later this summer to a USC program for potential medical students—one of his favorite things about the camp was its taste of serious police work.

“I remember thinking that it was really cool,” he says. “And really real.”

The truth comes out: polygraphs are a popular part of CSI camp.

Posted 7/10/14


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