Laguna middle school investigators put Lincoln assassination under the magnifying glassDaily Pilot, Costa Mesa, Calif. — Lilly Nguyen Daily Pilot, Costa Mesa, Calif.
Feb. 14-- Feb. 14--It was a sunny Thursday morning in Laguna Beach -- too pleasant, one might argue, for the grim events that unfolded in Thurston Middle School 's Black Box Theater, where, with a bang in the dark and a scream, it was discovered that the nation 's 16th president -- Abraham Lincoln -- had been assassinated by an unknown killer.
The dedicated student detectives called on to investigate such felonies are members of an elite squad called Thurston Middle School Forensics.
This is their story.
Bustling about the theater were 22 first- time investigators and 11 Laguna Beach patrol officers and detectives, hurriedly slipping on booties to photograph and collect evidence at the scene of the crime.
At the helm was Michelle Martinez -- a seventh- and eighth- grade social studies and forensics teacher -- and her daughter Noelle, a graduate student in criminal investigation at New Haven University in Connecticut.
Students in the mock crime scene investigations are tasked with collecting and labeling evidence in addition to speaking to eyewitnesses -- also played by students. They also are responsible for handling the body -- a mannequin.
This year 's investigation was funded by a $5, 000 grant from Cox Communications, but Martinez applies for different amounts, depending on the year.
The probe was the sixth since the program began in 2013.
Noelle Martinez, then in her sophomore year at Baylor University in Texas, helped make the lesson plans with her mother and continued to update them every year with information she learned in her studies of forensic science.
"In a crime scene, it 's not just one thing. So many moving parts are going into it. So, I 'm going to teach [the students ] that when it comes down to it, all these moving parts, everyone has to do, " Noelle said. "It isn 't just, 'Oh, let me just do this once and never think about it again.'"
The investigations change from year to year and draw from history, Michelle said. They originally began as plays, but beginning last year, forensics students are working with detectives and patrol officers from the Laguna Beach Police Department.
In April, Michelle said, students also will be working with the Laguna Beach Fire Department at Alta Laguna Park to investigate the death of Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth.
That investigation will have a different set of students, though the crime scene leaders will remain the same.
"Instead of making it up on their way, now [the students ] are actually doing hands- on for the field. This is what a real police officer does, " Michelle said.
Maesen Silva, 14, co- president of the forensics club, said she first got involved with forensics after she heard about it in sixth grade. She felt it was unique in its approach to teaching and that forensics wasn 't something she could learn in any of her other classes.
"I really want to go into the STEM [science, technology, engineering and math ] field, but I 'm not really quite sure what I want to do yet, so I might pursue a career in forensics, " Maesen said. "But I might also want to do something with the medical field. "I could also do medical with forensics. I could do both."
Mila Rafaty, 13, the group 's vice president, said she has been part of it since sixth grade.
This is the third year she 's participated in the mock crime scene investigation, though this year, Mila and Maesen are taking a step back with other club officers to help first- time investigators instead of being involved directly.
In the Lincoln investigation, the crew found evidence leading to Booth through witness statements, DNA uncovered through blood analysis, fingerprints on the replica gun used in the crime and on the balcony, and impression evidence of footprints and a horseshoe.
"I think it 's really important [to have this activity ] because it teaches you to be in the moment and it connects something you 're learning about with a physical thing, which is a really interesting experience, " Mila said. "It 's just cool to see because it 's also showing different career options for when we 're older. ... I never thought about doing forensic anthropology, but now it 's an interest of mine."
Laguna Beach police Sgt. Jim Cota said the collaboration between the department and the district started with school resource officer Cpl. Cornelius Ashton. With the addition of Officer Fred Yeilding as the city 's second school resource officer in December, Cota said the partnership has grown stronger.
"We love that [students ] have such an interest, and you just watch them... interacting and talking about the crime scene, pointing out things that they see. You can tell that they 're taking this serious, and you never know, this could be future little detectives in the making, " Cota said. "We 're going to do whatever we can to support their dream. Maybe it 's just something they do right now and maybe not later, but you never know.
"We have a great time with it and I know the school enjoys it, so this is going to be something we continue for years to come."
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