It’s 4 a.m. on a cold morning in April. While most West Virginia University students prepare for finals and graduation, 13 students in the Department of Forensic and Investigative Science are bundled up head-to-toe in their hooded Tyvek suits, booties, gloves and masks, protecting them from any hazardous materials they may encounter.

Led by Robert O’Brien, teaching assistant professor and internship coordinator in the Department of Forensic and Investigative Science, the students are investigating a mock crime scene at WVU’s Crime Scene Training Complex, the largest in the country. 

“This is where it all comes together,” O’Brien said. “Students get to actually practice in the field what they have learned in the classroom.” 

Housed on the Evansdale area of Morgantown, the training complex is comprised of four crime scene houses, the Vehicle Processing Center and the Ballistics Research Center, the latter of which contains a ballistics laboratory and the firearms testing range. Together, the facilities create a learning laboratory that students and professionals can use to study the complexities of a crime scene.

“I’ve processed numerous crime scenes, as have many of the other professors, so we all know what we didn’t know when we first started in the field,” said Suzanne Bell, chair of the Department of Forensic and Investigative Science. “We take a lot of pride in making sure that our students are ready to go when they leave here.” 

The Crime Scene Training Complex ensures that when students enter the workforce, they are well prepared in crime scene investigation. The unique array of crime scene houses and complementary facilities and laboratories provide an unparalleled opportunity to learn in safe, controlled environments from very knowledgeable and student-centered professors. 

“Students learn the proper way to document, collect and preserve the physical evidence as it relates to a crime scene,” O’Brien said. “With this hands-on practical experience inside and outside the complex, students learn how to assess a scene by observing, documenting and searching for physical evidence.” 

Vehicle Processing Center

The Vehicle Processing Center was constructed and dedicated in 2004. Here, undergraduates examine vehicles involved in crime scenes, such as hit-and-runs. Students also examine mock crimes with drugs and bombs located within vehicles. The facility supports a wide range of workshops, such as Forensic Science Saturdays for middle and high school students, Forensic Science Summer Camp for middle and high school students and even Forensic Science 101 for senior citizens, which is offered through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. The facility is also used for special training exercises and continuing education workshops. 

“I think the program itself is growing. We want to make sure our students continue to take advantage of our facilities.”
— Suzanne Bell

The Ballistics Research Center

The Ballistics Research Center, dedicated in 2016, provides students with the necessary tools and experience to meet the strong demand for forensic firearms examiners. The Center includes a firearms testing range and ballistics laboratory and is used for graduate research. Students test-fire weapons and compare cartridge cases with the international Integrated Ballistics Identification System database. Research projects in the testing range include examining trace evidence on projectiles fired through glass along with gunshot residue examination by those who shot the firearm. The ballistics lab provides a space to process and analyze data constructed from real-life scenarios. 

“This facility is unique to WVU,” Bell said. “Firearms and toolmark analysis is a forensic discipline that is rapidly changing, and we have already placed graduates in these positions. Having this facility gives us unmatched capabilities in teaching and research.” 

Crime Scene Houses

The four houses have not always been crime scene houses. As Morgantown and the University developed, so did the community. Each house has its own unique history and each has a different story to tell, but all four stories began with private ownership. 

WVU’s Evansdale area and the Crime Scene Training Complex houses share a past. In 1948, WVU President Irvin Stewart increased the size of the University, acquiring 260 acres of land from the Dille and Krepps farm. 

The earliest known owner of the land was James Evans, who sold the acreage to Oliver Dille in 1875. When Dille passed away, his heirs sold the property to the Evansdale Corporation in 1916. From this point on, various families owned the land and eventually built their own houses, not knowing that in the future, students would be entering these homes to uncover the secrets and hidden details of mock crime scenes.

“Entering into a house with furniture, appliances and wall paintings provide students with a real-life scenario of what they will experience in the real world,” O’Brien said. “In this environment, students gain an understanding and appreciation for pattern evidence encountered in crime scenes.”

The Crime Scene Training Complex is part of the neighborhood. Each house has been restored to fit within the community while maintaining them for future students to use. However, the most important goal is to preserve the houses and to keep them as part of the community. 

The Department of Forensic and Investigative Science, celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2018, is focused on ensuring students receive in-depth training to hit the ground running in their careers. Beyond the training complex, the department also prepares students through other resources, including résumé building, internship placement, professional development and courses in other science fields. 

Crime Scene House 1

In 1941, a deed was created that laid the restrictions on what to build on the property where the first crime scene now sits. Oliver Dille’s heirs, James and Opal Dille, owned the land before it was sold to John Edward and Barbara Prater in 1943. It was purchased by Herbert and Helen Edwards in 1945. City records indicate that Herbert Edwards worked his way through Baker and Coombs to eventually become a department manager, while his wife was a saleswoman at Wards. 

Following the requirements of the 1941 deed, the Edwards constructed a single-story brick Cape Cod house with cross-gabled roof. The front of the house includes a partial-width open porch, which features two brick column supports and decorative brick baluster. The back of the house features a chimney. 

In 1953, A.C. and Gladys Morris acquired the property and sold it to the WVU Foundation in 1975. Between 1975 and 2000, the house was used by various WVU support units. In 2000, it became WVU’s first crime scene house and is used today for mock crime scene exercises and class activities. 

“When presented with these mock crime scenes, students are expected to carry the casework from initial response on the scene to thorough investigation and evidence processing to detailed report writing all the way to the courtroom to testify on our findings,” said alumna Kelli Sullivan (BS Biology and Forensic and Investigative Science, 2018). “This full-circle network does not skip any steps of what occurs in the real-world and allows students to practice these skills as juniors and seniors before even receiving a diploma.”

Crime SCene house 1

Crime Scene House 2

The second crime scene house has a more diverse history of ownership than the first house. The Evansdale Corporation sold the land to Roxa Pepper in 1922. Similar to the first crime scene house, a deed was formed with restrictions. In 1923, Pepper sold the land to Leah and F.O. Hayden. The property was divided into two deeded lots. Leah Hayden sold the first lot in July 1941 and the second lot one month later to James and Vivian H.C. Marten, who owned the land for six years before selling it to production superintendent David and Ethel White in 1947. 

Two years later, the Whites constructed what is now the second crime scene house. The two-story asymmetrical Georgian house features a brick chimney and a low-pitched roofline. Its façade faces University Avenue, while all windows are one-over-one. The first story cladding is brick, and the second story’s composition includes vinyl siding. 

In 1950, the Whites sold their home to Delmas and Myrtle Miller. Miller was the University High School principal and an associate professor at WVU. Associate Professor and Director of the WVU Bureau of Coal Research Joseph Leonard and his wife Josephine purchased the property in 1963. They sold it to the University in 1975, and it became part of the Department of Forensic and Investigative Science in 2002, where it is used for mock crime scene exercises.

“I have quickly realized that the mock labs and hands-on experience I have gained over the past four years have truly advanced me ahead of students from other universities and allowed me to excel in the work force immediately following graduation,” Sullivan said. “The instructors in the FIS department are always presenting students with new challenges and curve balls in order to keep us aware of the every-changing nature of crime scene work.”

Crime Scene house 2   

Crime Scene House 3

The third crime scene house had similar ownership as the second until 1924. The Evansdale Corporation sold the land to Roxa Pepper in 1922, who sold it to Leah and F.O. Hayden. In early 1924, the Haydens sold the property to Frank and Alice Anderson, who sold the land to L.D., Agnes and Ethel Windle later that year. In May 1926, Rachel Lynch purchased the property and later sold it in September to Ida and W.J. Thomas. In 1935, Floyd, Clovia and Ora Lynch purchased the land, which was again sold in 1939 to Creed and Blake Bolyard. 

In 1941, E.A. and Beulah Crawford purchased the land from the Bolyards, and the one-and-a-half story brick Cape Cod house was built around 1947. The house features white scalloped shingles and a pair of one-over-one windows. The first floor includes a centrally placed one-story square bay with a tripartite window and scalloped shingled gable.

In 1949, as heirs, Rosemary St. Clair, W.R. Adlia, L.V. Mascioli and Robert and Dana Feity acquired the property after the Crawfords’ death, and sold the house to Clifford and Argentina Vilcheck. Later that year, Teresa Simmons purchased the house. In 1953, she and Victor Canton sold the house to engineer Philip Reif and his wife Emily. Five years later, Carl and Wilma Fitts purchased the property. The University bought the property in 1965 before dedicating it to the department in 2006. It has been used for crime scene trainings ever since.

“Our department truly includes the most supportive, encouraging and experienced instructors who desire to produce student success by preparing students for the work force,” Sullivan said. “With the help of long hours of practice and instructor critiques, students are able to learn from their mistakes and experiences in the crime scene complex in order to better prepare for the work force.” 

crime scene house 3

Crime Scene House 4

In 1923, the Evansdale Corporation sold the property to EA Crawford. As with the other three crime houses, a deed laid restricted what could be built on the land. Helen Thompson Mason purchased the land from the Crawfords in 1927. She and her husband Ralph sold the land to Walter Schnopp in 1928. Sam and Asumta Sellaro purchased the property in 1946, and the two-story stone veneer house was built around 1947. It features a hipped roof with latticed arched porch detailing. The second story of the house includes a balcony with metal railing and an exterior stone chimney. 

In 1956, the Sellaros sold the house to Mary Roma Sellaro Fragale and her husband Sam, who worked for Thorofare Markets for many years as their meat cutter, meat manager and department manager. After Mary Roma Sellaro Fragale’s passing in 1996, the house was left to the Fragales’ four children. In 2011, Antonio Fragale sold the house to WVU on behalf of Kimberly Fragale, Samuel Fragale II and Sarah Hancock. The house was dedicated to the department in 2016 and is now used as a photography lab in partnership with Nikon.

Crime scene house 4

“One of the core skills is being able to document evidence, so we renovated the bottom floor for our two photography courses,” Bell said. “With the number of students and the emphasis we put on photography, the lab gets a lot of use. We are grateful to Nikon for their locker program, which allows our students to work with state-of-the-art cameras in a state-of-the-art photography facility.”