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KNOXVILLE — Was it an accident or was it murder?

That was the mystery crime scene investigators at the National Forensic Academy had to solve by using their evidence evaluation skills at a simulated skydiving accident staged by NFA staff and supported by NFA benefactor and author Patricia Cornwell.

Eighteen CSIs, representing law enforcement agencies from Alaska to Georgia, participated in NFA Session XVII at the University of Tennessee. The 10-week session concluded March 16.

To stage the final exam — the skydiving accident — NFA staff created a life-size ballistics gelatin dummy, complete with organs and bones, and dropped it from more than 150 feet out of a helicopter. The dummy was rigged with a parachute that malfunctioned on the drop, simulating a tampered pack.

NFA instructor George Weeks, of the South Carolina Department of Public Safety, is an avid skydiver and has experience investigating such accidents. He, along with medical examiner Jamie Downs from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, instructed NFA participants in a brief field lecture after the drop.

“Skydiving incidents are rare, but the trauma is similar to what might be seen in a fall from a building or a plane crash. Witnessing this simulated incident will arm these CSIs with experience that will prove invaluable if, or when, they’re called to a real-life scene,” Weeks said.

The NFA is an in-residence training program open only to law enforcement professionals. Class size is limited so each student has ample opportunity to research and practice the techniques demonstrated throughout the session.

About 60 percent of training involves hands-on field exercises such as the simulated skydiving accident. Participants watch vehicles explode and burn, study actual human remains, and analyze bloodstain patterns at mock crime scenes. As they process these scenes, NFA students can try new techniques, such as a new chemical to process fingerprints, before using them in an actual investigation.

NFA participants spend a week at UT’s Body Farm, where UT’s anthropological experts teach CSIs to document post-mortem changes to human remains and practice burial discovery, recovery and mapping.

The NFA is a program of UT’s Law Enforcement Innovation Center, an agency of UT’s Institute for Public Service. More than 200 CSIs from 43 states and the District of Columbia have graduated from the academy since its formation in 2001.

Graduates of Session XVII:

• Craig Allen, Alaska State Troopers
• Jason Bellamy, Kingsport Police Department
• Lorraine Bethka, Pinal County, Ariz., Sheriff’s Office
• Faith Cunningham, Shelby County Sheriff’s Office
(Cunningham received the William Bass Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Forensic Investigation, an esteemed recognition from her classmates, for her contributions to the class.)
• Bill Curry, Bell County, Texas, District Attorney’s Office
• Katie Drum, Dawson County, Ga., Sheriff’s Office
• Michael Epple, Dallas, Texas, Police Department
• Bryan Johnson, Lakewood, Wash., Police Department
• John Lanneau, Warner Robins, Ga., Police Department
• Brian Lockhart, Chattanooga Police Department
• David MacNeil, Watertown, Mass., Police Department
(MacNeil was voted Session XVII Class Leader by his peers.)
• Shawn Naccarato, Canyon County, Idaho, Sheriff’s Office
• Lauren Sakala, Union County, N.J., Sheriff’s Office
• Eric Schwalls, Georgia Bureau of Investigation
• Bryan Smith, Georgia Bureau of Investigation
• Andy Wattenbarger, Cleveland Police Department
• William Yates, Jefferson County, Ala., Sheriff’s Office
• Mike Young, Gurnee, Ill., Police Department

Queena Jones, (865) 974-1533,
Amy Blakely, (865) 974-5034,