What It’s Like Studying In a Murder House

When your new job is to show up and take hair samples after an axe murder, you might need a little hands-on preparation.

by Caitrin Pilkington
Feb 16 2018, 7:56pm

All photos by Curtis Rothney

“This is a farmhouse, and there’s a lot of blood here, so... naturally you do get a lot of flies,” says Adrian Borlestean.

They’re clustered and crawling all over the outside of the second story window, trying to reach the blood that’s spattered across the walls and ceiling. Through the window there are snowy fields and bales of hay for as far as the eye can see. This house is a distance from its neighbours, and it’s dead quiet. We’re standing in a dusty, bloodstained bedroom with a hammer on the floor.

It may look like something out of Silence of the Lambs, but it’s actually a laboratory.

The bloodstains, bottles, discarded weaponry—it’s all Borlestean’s handiwork. He’s a lab facilitator at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario.

“We actually use sheep’s blood for the spatters,” says Borlestean. “Which makes the walls a biohazard. Try not to touch anything.”

The crime scene house is located so far on the edge of campus it requires a special bus to reach it. The interior decorating gives off the distinct impression that time froze sometime in 1995. Old, quaint, surrounded by rolling fields and stands of trees, the building may not appear to be a part of the university at all. But this house is to the forensics department what the library is to the English department at Trent. It’s a place to put theory into practice.

Accountants or marketing students may leave lecture halls after graduating and feel ready for their first day of work, but when your new job is to show up and take hair samples after an axe murder, you might need a little hands-on preparation. And while the “crime scene house” trend appears to be catching on at other schools, Trent’s has been up and running for nearly a decade.

As soon as students arrive at the house, they suit up and prepare for gore. The mood is cheerful as they change into the faceless white suits familiar to anyone who’s watched CSI.

“I need some tape,” says teaching assistant Sumiko Polacco, pulling up the pants of her crime scene suit. “They’re one size fits all, so normally we hike the legs up a bit and tape around the knee. Otherwise, I mean, during the blood analysis lab you could be all...” she mimes slipping backwards into a puddle of fresh blood and laughs.

Polacco and the other lab assistants offer a tour of the crime scene house, starting in the cement cellar, which features a video camera, single chair, and rusty saw. Bullet holes puncture the walls of the dining room. Bits of hair and blood pools in the living room floor. A bloody handprint marks the wall by the stairs. A knife, a hammer, and yet more blood smears the walls of the bedrooms.

Each of these scenes is meant to equip students for the daily reality of working in forensics.

Are basement torture scenes common enough that it was necessary to include one in the house?

“Well, it’s not every day in forensics that you deal with crazy serial killers,” says former student Jill Barclay. “But it’s a scene you could very well come across, because people are twisted.”

Preparing for that twistedness is what’s key. Trent students, if they go on to work with the OPP, can expect to deal with cases like Bruce MacArthur—the alleged serial killer and former mall Santa accused of hiding the body parts of several men in planters during his time as a landscaper.

Dr. Mike Iles is a professor of Forensic Science at Trent and former Regional Manager of Forensic services for the Ontario Provincial Police. He has worked on a number of MacArthur-level cases, including a murder committed by the infamous Air Force Colonel Russell Williams.

“There have been experiences in my career where there’s an emotional toll... Where I’ve seen people be successful in the business is when they’re able to look at a scene scientifically, and that pushes the emotional side out. You’re here to do a job, and to use the science that applies to that job. And that helps when you have a really messy scene or a lot of people dead,” Dr. Iles says.

The Crime Scene House.

In the late 1960s, Trent acquired a tract of land that included an old abandoned farmhouse. The house had been rented out by families for decades before that. In 2008, the forensics department saw an opportunity. Dr. Iles and other professors decorated the house with their own old belongings and scavenged furniture from residence rooms.

In a 2016 study, Trent University found that after working at the crime scene house more than half the students reported the experience had a “major impact on their understanding,” and the final examination grade average went from a C+ to a B-.

“Instead of a pristine lab, we have this real opportunity for experiential learning,” says Dr. Theresa Stotesbury, a professor at Trent who’s famous for developing a creepily accurate blood synthetic. “Students are dealing with dust, dirt, the elements... that’s why this house is so great.”

Students are taught to form a hypothesis—say that a particular spattering of blood must be an impact pattern—and then use evidence to determine that probability. Essentially, they learn to treat the rooms like puzzles.

“You might walk into a crime scene where there are some cigarettes on the floor, some cups, a piece of rope, a few spots of blood, and an open window... and that’s it,” says Dr. Christopher Kyle, Chair of Forensics.

Dr. Kyle specializes in the lab side of the work. He explains that not all forensic work is criminal in nature: some supports civil or health-related cases, like a toxicology report or e-coli testing. Students also learn to analyze non-human DNA, which is useful in cases of suspected poaching or if a pit bull has been used as a weapon. There’s also forensic entomology: the study of insects found on cadavers.

Back at the farmhouse, teaching assistants Samantha Grant, Amanda Orr and Sumiko Polacco are swabbing beer bottles, collecting hair with tweezers, measuring the width of bullet holes and taking photos of bloodstains.

“There’s such a breadth of knowledge in forensics that you can really choose to specialize in whatever interests you,” says Grant through her mask.

According to Dr. Iles, those who become passionate about forensics often have a strong connection to social justice: “they’re there to help the victim, or help the family through a very difficult time—to help through science.”

All a laboratory is, at the end of the day, is a space to carry out tests in controlled conditions. The crime scene house helps students bring that sense of control to rooms where the strangest, most unpredictable parts of human nature have revealed themselves. Before long, students are able to view even the most intense crime scenes as simple problem-solving—just another set of opportunities to put their hard-earned skills into practice.