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Not like TV: FBI gives teens a taste of real crime scene work

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Jordan De Graff, 16, and Adrian Delgado Cota, 17, process a mock crime scene on June 28 during the FBI Teen Academy held at the FBI headquarters in Albuquerque.(Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

Jordan De Graff kneels to photograph the body, while Adrian Delgado Cota scribbles notes – a shotgun shell pokes out of the grass, a notepad lies beside the victim, a large bloodstain covers his chest.

But it’s not as it seems: De Graff and Cota are teenagers, the body isn’t real, and the “crime scene” is staged.

The two boys – members of the FBI Teen Academy – were joined by a dozen other high school students on the front lawn of the FBI headquarters in Albuquerque on a recent Thursday afternoon to get hands-on experience cataloguing mock crime scenes.

It was part of a demonstration put on by the bureau’s Evidence Response Team.

Rio Rancho High School’s Kai Warrior, 15, became interested in law enforcement from watching TV and movies. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

“I wish I could tell you our crime scenes were this nice, neat and organized,” FBI spokesman Frank Fisher said as he addressed the group of teens who would soon be split up into investigative teams of photographers, evidence markers and sketch artists.

“This is very hands-on – we know that these young people have a lot of options during the summer,” Fisher said. “We want to throw ourselves in there and say, ‘Hey, take a look at us.’ If it’s not a career they would be interested in, at least they will have an appreciation for law enforcement.”

The weeklong program is in its second year and accepts high school juniors and seniors from across the Duke City at no cost.

Fisher said the students learn about FBI history, counterintelligence, SWAT, bomb technicians and other facets of law enforcement before they graduate.

“Hopefully, they get a great experience,” he said. “That’s most important.”

A shotgun shell sits beside an evidence marker at a mock crime scene at the FBI Teen Academy. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Special Agent Bradley Koons knows the job’s not all high heels and three-piece suits, as the boob tube and big screen would have you believe.

“I think it’s a fantastic opportunity to get young people out here to see a little bit of what it really looks like – versus ‘CSI’ and quick little hits of fiction they see on TV every single night,” the nine-year veteran of the FBI said.

Once the teens are done collecting evidence at the outdoor crime scene, they go inside to learn about using light and chemicals to bring out bodily fluids and other evidence during the course of an investigation.

FBI Special Agent Bradley Koons speaks with students recently during the FBI Teen Academy at the FBI headquarters in Albuquerque. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Inside a pitch-black garage, the group moves around the faux crime scene: A body is slumped over the steering wheel of a truck surrounded by hidden messages, stains and droplets invisible to the naked eye.

The high school students use flashlights with special filters along with BlueStar – a chemical used by investigators to reveal blood and other fluids – to locate clues around the truck.

This is De Graff’s favorite part of the whole week.

“I’m learning a lot,” the 16-year-old said.

Albuquerque Academy’s Spencer Ghattas, 17, holds a filtered alternate light source as he and Santa Fe High’s Katia Chavez use orange glasses to search for evidence. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

De Graff said that, before the Teen Academy, he suffered from the “CSI effect” that comes from believing everything you see on TV.

“People watch all these great shows, but they sometimes overdramatize and give false impressions,” he said.

De Graff, who’s home-schooled, said he is very sad the Teen Academy is almost over but hopes to join the FBI someday as a special agent or victims’ assistant.

“Victims are sometimes forgotten,” he said. “I want to make sure they are involved in getting justice.”

Kai Warrior, a Rio Rancho High School junior, said she was interested, but hesitant, when she saw a commercial for the Teen Academy.

Her mother encouraged her to sign up, and she doesn’t regret the decision.

Warrior said she became interested in law enforcement from watching TV and movies.

“I definitely feel lied to,” she said of the portrayal.

Now that she knows about how investigations work and the different agencies involved, Warrior wants to pursue a career solving white-collar crime.

But the 15-year-old said she’s going to keep watching the movies anyway.

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