The sun hung low in the western sky, and the temperature began to drop. With dusk approaching, the investigators knew they were racing against the clock to gather important evidence before darkness covered the hills and obscured the shallow grave they needed to inspect.

Earlier that evening, the group was briefed that a hiker had come across decomposing remains in a remote area of the Wild Basin Creative Research Center and that clothing scattered nearby could indicate that those remains were human. It was their job to process the crime scene by taking photographs, drawing sketches, collecting evidence and recording data.

Although it sounds like an open-and-shut case that can be solved in an hour-long drama, it’s actually the very hands-on “scattered remains” exercise for students in instructor Casie Parish-Fisher’s Crime Scenes II course. Parish-Fisher has set up mock crime scenes for students in the past, but this one required much more preparation — and the partnership with Wild Basin — to create a very realistic crime scene.

Wild Basin, which was acquired by St. Edward’s in 2009, was initially preserved in the 1970s to counter increasing urban development and to protect native plant and animal species. It has served as a living laboratory for a variety of programs across St. Edward’s, but this was the first time that the Forensic Science program had taken advantage of its surroundings for this type of exercise.  

Parish-Fisher, along with Wild Basin staff, assembled the crime scene in an area not open to the public. Four deceased hogs were buried in shallow graves and left to decompose for three weeks. Then the remains, along with some clothing, were scattered to give the  impression of human remains.

Parish-Fisher, who has worked as a DNA analyst for the CODIS laboratory at the Texas Department of Public Safety’s Austin headquarters and as a property crime scene technician for the Austin Police Department’s crime-scene unit, strives to give her students insight into real-life investigations. “I try to get the CSI effect out of their brains,” she says. “They don’t realize how meticulous you have to be. There are no easy answers on a crime scene. This class teaches them how to make good decisions when they get to those scenes.”

Sixteen juniors and seniors, divided into groups of four, surveyed the scene during the course of two days. Although the groups approached the situation in different ways (some better than others), they all walked away with a better understanding of what it takes to  establish effective communication and teamwork. Moreover, they learned there are times to rise up and be leaders — and times to step back and be followers. And even though this exercise only solved the mystery of four untimely bovine deaths, Parish-Fisher is quick to point out that the lessons learned were no less impactful for her students. “In the end, it’s about seeking justice for victims and their families,” says Parish-Fisher.

Lisa Thiegs is a freelance writer