Gabby and her team of forensic detectives huddle around the dead body of Maximus, the Master Magician and owner of Cirque Du Mystique, at the scene of his murder. Yellow tape blocked off the area, which was splattered with blood, and number cards mark evidence they need to solve the murder—this staged murder, that is. The body was but a blow-up doll.
The 16-year-old and her teammates were among hundreds of high school students who competed in Forensics World’s 12th Annual CSI Challenge at Stony Brook University on Monday. Teenagers swapped their textbooks and backpacks for rubber gloves and goggles as they spent hours solving the fake, circus-themed murder mystery using their knowledge of forensics.
“This is the first time in their whole education where they can apply themselves,” said Michael Kennedy, a forensic scientist with Forensics World, an organization that conducts educational programs in forensic science. “The great thing about it is that it’s like a real-life scenario condensed into one day.”
Thirty-five teams from high schools throughout Long Island, New York City and upstate examined identical crime scenes to solve the fabricated murder of Maximus, a fictional magician who opened his own circus after being fired from another. Team captains such as Gabby delegated the work and oversaw procedures throughout the day.
Scientists and law enforcement officials observed the students and graded them on 30 different categories ranging from leadership and professionalism to analyses of evidence and interviews with suspects. Those under interrogation included a fortune teller named Zelda, an acrobat who goes by the title Magnus the Magnificent and Chuckles the Clown.
After a day of fingerprinting, running ballistics and other tests, the teenage investigators made their case to the judges. The scientists and law enforcement officials announced McGann Mercy High School in Riverhead as the winner at an awards ceremony concluding the competition. Plainedge High School came in second place and Massapequa High School took third.
“It was one of our best competitions,” challenge coordinator David Tricamo said. “They were a very intelligent, motivated group of students.”
The students spent months in clubs and classes to train and prepare for the competition. Matt, Sabrina, Jackie and Jordan—all 16-year old students from an LI high school—said they trained every Wednesday of the school year. Competition rules prohibited them from giving out their high school and last names.
“They treat it like an actual crime scene,” said Jordan, who identified herself as a lover of popular shows such as CSI and Law & Order.
“You learn what to do, you learn procedures,” Jackie, who wants to go into the forensics field, said.
Coordinators of the CSI Challenge also take many months planning and developing the competition. Kennedy said each aspect of it is carefully thought out so clues lead to one another like in an actual murder investigation.
“When a crime happens, there are a lot of intricate details,” he said. “We try to make it as real as possible.”
Frank Tricamo, a detective with the Suffolk County Police Department’s First Precinct, said the competition is a good experience for students regardless of whether or not they want a career in forensics or criminal justice.
“It teaches them leadership rules, how to follow directions,” he said. “It opens up a lot of opportunities for them.”
For many students, this year’s challenge was not their first. Gabby, an aspiring pediatrician, said she enjoys forensics enough that she returned to participate for a third year.
“It’s really fun and rewarding,” she said of the competition. “It’s a challenge.”