A magnifying glass with a ruler in the centre is placed on top of dark thumbprints on white paper, while a blue-gloved hand holds a paper tag, handwritten with a date, GE number and location, next to the magnifying glass
Photo by Nick Iwanyshyn

Investigating Crime, One Fake Body at a Time

U of T Mississauga’s forensic science program gives students a unique training experience

An emergency responder briefs the investigators who have gathered at U of T Mississauga: a body, along with shrapnel and pages from The Anarchist Cookbook, has been found outside a house adjacent to a shipping container. Another body lies near a car. On the vehicle’s roof appears to be the remnants of an explosion. If not for the mannequins, the area might be mistaken for a real crime scene. That is the point.

The staged setting is part of the degree program in forensic science at U of T Mississauga, and is designed to give upper-year students “on-the-job” experience as a crime scene investigator before they graduate. The work involves everything from securing the location and collecting evidence such as fingerprints and DNA, collaborating with forensic chemistry students to analyze what they’ve found, and later testifying in a mock courtroom.

Sahana Pirapakaran, a fourth-year student specializing in forensic anthropology, worked on the simulated crime scene earlier this year and found the set-up highly realistic. “I felt like I really was a crime scene officer,” she says.

Graduates of U of T Mississauga’s forensic science program have gone on to work at Toronto Police Services and other law enforcement agencies, the RCMP and the Centre for Forensic Sciences.

The detailed scenes, which are prepared by the program’s staff, are also used to give high school students, rotary clubs and other community groups a firsthand introduction to crime scene investigations. Murray Clayton, the program officer and outreach co-ordinator, likens these one-day events to an “educational escape room” in which participants get a chance to solve the “crime.”

Although students in recent years have been drawn to forensics through the television show CSI, it doesn’t take long for them to realize that what they see on TV is far from reality. On screen, one forensic investigator typically collects the evidence, analyzes it in the lab and solves the case. In real life, each task goes to a uniquely trained forensic specialist, such as an anthropologist, biologist, chemist or psychologist.

Pirapakaran says her experience with the mock investigation hammered home how little room for error there is. “In a real-life situation, you don’t get a redo,” she says. “You’re dealing with someone’s life.”

At U of T Mississauga, forensics students wear jackets with patches on the sleeve (like Scout badges) representing their area of focus – a skull, for instance, represents forensic anthropology. Only a few people can claim a patch for each specialty offered at the campus; one is Prof. Tracy Rogers, the program’s director since 2001.

For Rogers who has worked on some of the highest-profile cases in Canada, the work of forensic investigators helps society answer questions about criminal activity and puts to rest questions that family members have about their loved ones. “In a sense it helps the victim,” she says. “At least having their story told and getting some kind of justice for them is a valuable service.”

A student wearing blue gloves and holding a paper evidence bag looks back at the body of a female-shaped dummy lying in front of a large blue storage container, with its dismembered limbs scattered on the ground. Yellow labels marked with numbers are set beside each piece of evidence.
The staged crime scenes that students investigate vary from year to year, but each comes with a detailed back story. This year’s was based loosely on the Boston Marathon bombing. All photos by Nick Iwanyshyn
A student wearing a black face mask and blue hijab is writing on a brown paper evidence bag
Each mock crime scene is designed to contain many different kinds of evidence, and to test the range of skills students have learned in the program. This year, students retrieved a handwritten note with an antigovernment message, which they could send for handwriting or pen analysis.
A plastic bag containing a paper document, marked as
In the basement of a house, students found a table with long plastic tubes, a battery, cables and gun powder. Droplets of blood marked the floor and a Band-Aid wrapper bore a bloody fingerprint. One of the challenges as an investigator is deciding what to collect as evidence. “A drinking straw could contain the DNA of the perpetrator,” says fourth-year student Sahana Pirapakaran. “The smallest thing could be the key to the scene – and the case.”
Three students wearing blue gloves examine a broken, rusted car in a forest area, marked
The students work in small groups, and each group is assigned to investigate a specific area of the crime scene. Agata Gapinska-Serwin, the program’s laboratory co-ordinator who helped prepare the scene, says one of the trickier tasks is making sure that there are enough pieces of evidence, and that they are spread approximately equally across the different areas.
A student, wearing blue gloves, examine a white powdery substance inside a toolbox with a yellow label
A student takes a swab of the brown stains on the chin of a bare, female-shaped dummy missing arms
Pirapakaran says until working the mock crime scene she hadn’t fully considered how the weather can impede an investigator’s work. “Our area was outdoors, and it started to rain. So, you have to think critically about which evidence to collect first.”

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