Olympia officer conquers CSI's Body Farm

CSI: Detective Rebecca Fayette top in her class at prestigious academy

May 1, 2011 

At a place known as the "Body Farm," Olympia police Detective Rebecca Fayette dug up scattered human remains to hone her skills in collecting and preserving evidence at crime scenes.

She combed through debris after watching a car explode to learn how to identify different kinds of dynamite.

And she donned a hazmat suit and swung a baseball bat dipped in human blood to study the patterns left by blood “castoff.”

It was all part of her recent training at the University of Tennessee National Forensic Academy, home of the Body Farm.

Fayette, who took over as the Olympia Police Department’s crime scene investigator when she returned from the 10-week training in March, said the hands-on experience was unorthodox but fun. Fayette said she has experience with dozens of death investigations during her time as a detective, so digging up human remains at the Body Farm was just part of the job.

“After 11 years of doing this, nothing seems strange to me anymore,” Fayette said during an interview at OPD’s headquarters in the new City Hall building. Some of the learning experiences, such as watching a car explode during the bomb training, were “surreal,” she added.

Fayette, 39, graduated at the top of her class of 24 students who trained from January to March. She was awarded the NFA’s Dr. William Bass Award, named for the forensic anthropologist who founded the Body Farm.

The award recognizes Fayette “for outstanding achievement in the field of forensic investigation.”

Robert Geiger, forensic training coordinator for the academy, said the award is the most prestigious honor bestowed by the academy.

“It was definitely more intense, and it was just very detailed,” Fayette said, comparing her NFA studies with other training in residence that she has completed during her law enforcement career. “We weren’t there to goof off and play, but to learn and study quite a bit.”

The NFA’s curriculum emphasized hands-on training – 240 hours of Fayette’s 400 hours of coursework were in the field, including 21/2 days learning the art of crime scene investigation.

The Body Farm is a fenced plot of about 2 acres on the University of Tennessee’s Knoxville campus where forensic anthropologists and law enforcement professionals learn about decomposition and the effects of insects – maggots, beetles and flies – on human remains. They learn what the insects can reveal about times of death and how long a body has been in a location. The cadavers buried at the Body Farm are donated to further research in forensic science.

Fayette, from Anchorage, Alaska, earned a $7,500 scholarship to attend the NFA training. She has been a detective with the Olympia department since 2008. Before that, she worked patrol on the streets of Olympia for eight years after completing her training at the Law Enforcement Academy in Burien.

Others at the UT training included a Texas Ranger, a state Department of Public Safety officer from Alaska, and law enforcement and civilian CSI personnel from around the country.

In addition to her regular coursework, Fayette also passed a four-hour practical exam, receiving her Level II CSI certification from the International Association of Identification.

Fayette said it was “one of the hardest exams I’ve ever taken.”

Olympia police Lt. Steve Oderman said Fayette’s Level II CSI certification gives her the ability to match fingerprints left at crime scenes with a suspect’s fingerprints in crime databases – work that in the past had to be farmed out to the Washington State Patrol Crime Lab. Fayette’s ability to do certified fingerprint work that will stand up in court will save OPD investigators precious time needed to make cases and keep bad guys off the streets, Oderman said.

“It speeds up our eliminations of suspects,” he said.

Fayette said she is confident that many of the skills and techniques she learned while attending the NFA training will assist in her work as OPD’s new CSI. The coursework included instruction in bloodstain pattern analysis, firearm serial number restoration, explosives investigations, forensic anthropology, latent fingerprint processing, photography and bullet trajectory reconstruction.

Fayette said the photography coursework helped her learn how to overcome bad weather or low-light conditions at outdoor crime scenes.

Fayette also said she learned more about latent fingerprint photography and how to photograph prints and submit them to a national fingerprint database. She learned techniques for lifting latent fingerprints from difficult surfaces, such as clothing and even duct tape.

Oderman said Fayette has always had an eye for detail and a talent for being able to work meticulously with technical details at crime scenes.

Her superiors noticed her skills early on and steered her toward CSI training, he added. Oderman said the department now hopes Fayette will teach her fellow detectives the tricks of the trade that she learned during her NFA training.

“It really gives her a lot of technical skills and knowledge that she will apply to major crime scenes,” Oderman said of her recent training. “We will use her as an instructor in our in-service training.”

Fayette said she loves CSI work – and police work – in Olympia.

“I’ve been doing this for 11 years now, and I’m probably more excited now than I was in the beginning,” she said.

Jeremy Pawloski: 360-754-5465
jpawloski@theolympian.com

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