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Hunting Incident Academy 'CSI in the woods'

John McCoy
In one of the field exercises during this week's Hunting Incident Academy, investigators Ryan Niehus of the Oregon State Police (left) and Scott Van Buren of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission traced a blood trail along a dirt road to a shooting site in thick brush.
John McCoy Volunteer Mark Debord (left), who played the part of one of the hunters in the area during the incident, gave investigator Nathan Erdman of the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation a hard time about yielding his shotgun. Debord and fellow volunteer Jerry Payne (right), actually both West Virginia Natural Resources Police officers, were instructed to attempt to confuse the investigators.

CHAPMANVILLE, W.Va. -- Slowly and carefully, the two officers examined the dirt road that led to the scene of the shooting.

"There's some blood here on this paper cup," said one, as he stooped to flag the evidence.

"Look over here," said the other. "There are a lot of broken branches, and there's a camp chair that's been knocked over. This might be where the victim was shot."

The blood wasn't real. The evidence, spread over 3 acres of rugged Logan County hillside, was set up deliberately to confound and confuse the officers investigating an imaginary hunting accident.

The investigating officers were trainees at the Hunting Incident Academy, a once-yearly gathering of law enforcement officers from throughout the country. Participants spend a week learning how to properly reconstruct hunting-related shootings.

"It's CSI in the woods," said Mike Van Durme, a retired New York environmental conservation officer and head trainer for the weeklong school. "We deal with ballistics, collection and preservation of evidence, and potential legal issues. We want the officers to be able to reconstruct these shootings based on evidence they find at the scene."

Van Durme said evidence collection is especially important for hunting-incident investigators.

"In three-quarters of all hunting incidents, the initial report of what happened is wrong," he said. "People will lie about the shooting to protect friends or family members from getting into trouble, people will lie because they weren't supposed to be where they were, and sometimes people give wrong information just because they were in a stressful situation and their memory isn't clear."

Van Durme and the academy's other trainers teach students to reconstruct incidents based on the evidence, and then to use the evidence to see if witnesses' stories check out.

"We use the same sort of technology the guys on the CSI shows use," he said. "We use blood spatter and entry-wound angles to determine where shots came from, and we use a special piece of equipment called a 'measurement of visibility device' to determine what the shooter was actually able to see."

This year's academy, held in and around the Chief Logan Conference Center near Chapmanville, attracted 40 students from 16 states. Six of the students were West Virginia Natural Resources Police officers.

Lt. Tim Coleman, the Natural Resources Police's training officer, said his agency has sent officers to the academy since it began in 1993.

"We usually send two a year," he said. "This year, since we were hosting it, we got to send six -- one from each of our districts. These officers will go back to their districts and share what they learned with the rest of the officers in their detachment."

West Virginia is the sixth state to host the school.

"It was held in Missouri the first few years," Van Durme said. "After a while, we began moving it around -- to Iowa, Georgia, Florida, Connecticut and now to West Virginia."

West Virginia proved an attractive option because the Chief Logan facility offered lodging, meeting rooms and an adjacent wildlife management area that could be used for role-playing field exercises.

Those exercises, held Wednesday in a deep hollow near the park's rifle range, featured volunteers playing the parts of victims, hunters, bystanders and media members. Trainers designed the scenarios to test the investigators' ability to analyze evidence they gathered, reconcile witnesses' often-conflicting stories, ignore red herrings planted by trainers, and deal with media trying to crash the scene.

Glenn Jones, president of the West Virginia Hunter Education Association, played the role of a witness in one of the exercises. As he sat through the training sessions and watched the field exercises, he became more and more impressed.

"This training would help any officer be more effective at investigating crime scenes in the woods," he said.

"There used to be a saying here in West Virginia: 'If you want to kill someone, take them hunting.' That's no longer the case. Officers now have the training and expertise to figure out exactly what happened."Reach John McCoy at johnmccoy@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1231.


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