It wasn't "CSI" or "Dexter," but it was close. On Tuesday, Nov. 1 and Wednesday, Nov. 2, the Forensic Investigation Crime Scene House at the UW-Platteville Pioneer Farm was transformed. Diana Johnson, assistant professor in the criminal justice department and Dana Cecil, lecturer at UW-Platteville, organized a horrific crime scene recreation of the 1970 fatal vision murders, which occurred at Ft. Bragg, N.C.
The duo wanted to organize an event that would showcase the house and what it has to offer the students in terms of hands-on learning. During the two-day open house, approximately 200 visitors, including students, staff, faculty and UW-Platteville alumni walked through the house.
"We've tried our best to incorporate as much of the evidence that was present at the original crime scene," said Johnson. "We've labeled the evidence. We have body outlines. We have (fake) blood stains to give a feel of what happened and what an investigator would have seen if they would have been here on that day during the investigation."
The organizers attempted to make the scene identical to the original.
"As they (visitors) walk through each room they will see information posted on what's pertinent to that room," said Cecil. "There's crime scene photos, so they can compare it to the reconstruction. There's information on any evidence in that room, any weapons found in that room, the victims and their injuries as well so that they know exactly what they are looking at."
The timeline of events, along with other pertinent information was available for viewing in the basement of the house, before visitors walked to the main level to witness the recreated crime scene.
Both Johnson and Cecil count the crime scene house as an invaluable tool for the criminal justice program and for the university. "Being in the middle of a physical space, learning and seeing physical props, it almost transports you in time and gives you a sense of the reality of it, especially for criminal justice students," said Johnson. "If this is what they are going to become involved in as a career, this is invaluable for them to be in this space."
"The house is specifically made so that we can put fake blood on the wall," added Cecil. "We can do actual fingerprinting on the walls and it's easy clean-up from those things, so it's nice that the forensics program can come out and use it to do those detail things, but people that have law enforcement emphasis, or other emphasis as well, can come out and be transported into the crime scene as well."
This case was selected because it is controversial and it is somewhat timely as it may be back in court.
The fatal vision murders involved Jeffrey McDonald and his family during the early morning hours of a February day. According to Johnson and Cecil, he told investigators at the time that he was asleep on the couch and was awakened by his family screaming. He said he observed four people who were chanting and they attacked him. He called for help. When the military police arrived, McDonald was injured and his pregnant wife and their two children, ages five and two, were found murdered.
The investigation led to McDonald being named as a suspect. The Army dropped the charges against him; however, in 1979 he was tried and convicted of the triple murder.
McDonald remains in prison. The Innocence Project is working with him, and this case may be in the court system again.
The feedback from those who visited the house has been positive. "Everyone who has been here has been really engaged and have been asking us questions, taking the time to read the material, and really be present in the scene. It's neat to see," said Johnson.
"They all want to tell us their theory," added Cecil.
Johnson and Cecil went through much effort to organize the event and they hope to plan another one for this time next year.