Emil Moldovan used to be a crime fighter. For 20 years he was a medicolegal death investigator, often showing up at the scene to reconstruct the crime and collect evidence moments after a murder.
Today Moldovan is an adjunct professor at Radford University teaching criminal justice students the same intricacies of evidence collecting that made him a successful investigator in the Los Angeles County coroner's office.
"We want to give our students enough practical experience so that, when they get hired for an agency, this won't be a total shock," Moldovan said Sunday as student investigators marked evidence, including fake blood he had dripped on the Norwood Hall sidewalk during a mock kidnapping.
The crime scene, which Moldovan staged with Alpha Phi Sigma, the criminal justice honor society, was an exercise, fundraiser and competition for the society. It began with the kidnapping in the Waldron Hall parking lot. A handful of more-than-willing criminal justice students convincingly played their roles on April Fools' Day.
The scene began when a white Ford van sped into the parking lot. Two men jumped out and grabbed a woman carrying a baby. She screamed for the up-to-no-gooders to let her go. The abductors put the baby—portrayed by a plastic doll—and the woman, played by student Ariel Diaz, into the van and raced onto Jefferson Street.
"The emergency is we have a possible abduction with a child involved," Moldovan explained after the van disappeared. "Any time you have a baby involved in abduction, the critical issue rises dramatically. We don't know what they're going to do with the child and the victim. Are they going to hurt them? Kill them? We don’t know."
Moments later two student investigators, led by junior criminal justice major John Grimes, arrived to examine the evidence: a diaper bag, purse and baby bottle dropped by Diaz. Inside the purse, Moldovan had planted a hypodermic needle that, if found by investigators, could raise questions about the motive.
The first two investigators—the scene was examined three times by three separate teams—sketched, measured and collected the evidence. They also questioned witnesses. "I think it was two white dudes," said Blaine Morgan, an Alpha Phi Sigma member playing a witness. "My friend said he saw the van around Norwood."
Transported by Radford University Police vehicles with lights flashing and sirens blaring, the investigators followed that lead to the residence hall's parking lot, where they found the van parked with its front wheels on the grass and back wheels on the asphalt.
Investigators searched the van, then followed the fake blood trail inside Norwood to Room 134. There they discovered the abductee with a black eye and a white bandage on her left arm, holding her baby and sitting with two men, the kidnapping suspects.
The investigators took the suspects into the hallway for questioning and returned to interview the woman. Cut! It's a wrap.
The students pored over the evidence this week and will report to a panel of criminal justice professors led by Nicole Hendrix. The team judged to have the most comprehensive report will receive a certificate.
"Our main hope for the participants is that they have fun and get to work with the Radford University police officers who donated their time to give us their professional perspective," said senior Samantha Lynn, vice president of Alpha Phi Sigma. For the students, she said, "it is a chance to get hands-on experience related to what they’ve covered in class, such as forensic photography and interview techniques."
Grimes said he gained valuable knowledge from the exercise, his second fake crime scene in a week. On March 27, as part of Professor Tod Burke's criminal investigations theory class, Grimes was one of 40 student participants in an hourlong exercise on the lawn behind the criminal justice building.
"Today's exercise gave me a chance to do it again, and they both were great learning experiences," Grimes said.
Burke, a former police officer in Maryland, has been staging mock crimes scenes on campus for 16 years. "Learning theory is nice, but the purpose of the mock crime scene is to get the students to take the theory and put it to practice. It shows them real crime scenes do not work out the way they do on TV," Burke said. "Plenty of things went wrong—and I want them to make mistakes. But overall they did great for students who have never worked a crime scene. Plus they finished it in an hour… without commercials."