AUBURN – Yolanda Mata lay sprawled on her side, on the floor, clutching a phone in her fake-dead hand. Red theater blood had dried into streaks around her temples to simulate a blow from a rubber mallet.
The killer left footprints in the fine bloody spray on the kitchen floor. He left the mallet in the bathroom sink.
Then he’d left the whodunit mystery to Mata’s classmates, criminal justice majors at Andover College.
They had three hours to solve the mock crime in the basement of the Androscoggin County courthouse Monday morning. They did it in almost half the time.
“They’re very hungry to prove themselves,” said Seth Roberts, a student from Sabattus who dreamed up the scene with his professor, crime novelist and Franklin County deputy sheriff Peter Mars.
The criminal investigation class ended last week. On Monday, crisis negotiation class started. Mars said he thought the challenge would go nice in between.
The murder was staged in the former juvenile detention room. School administrators said Andover students solved a mock murder earlier this year at its Portland campus. This was the first time trying it locally, and the first time the school tried it off-site.
That made it seem more real, Roberts said. Of course his attention to detail helped.
There was an upended chair and shards from a broken dish in the kitchen to look like a fight had broken out. He and a friend hid a hotel key under a bed, love letters in the pages of a book and a huge black gun in the drop ceiling.
He even poured a little puddle of cream of celery soup on the floor to make it look like Mata had gotten sick before she died.
The first order of business when the dozen students arrived at 11 a.m.: plastic gloves all around.
They broke into teams, taking pictures and notes and processing evidence with tags labeled “Andover CSI.”
In a side room, a handful of students dusted the gun and key for fingerprints. In an hour and 50 minutes, they’d matched those prints to the prime suspect: the dead woman’s abusive husband, played by another student. She’d discovered he was having an affair.
“They nailed it. They put all the pieces together,” said Roberts, a former corrections officer. “They did a fantastic job.”
Mars said people remember techniques by doing them. He has put students through drills sketching crime scenes, photographing them and locating evidence, once challenging students to tell whether a man who was “killed” near a local social club tried to crawl toward the club for help or got dragged there. (He crawled.)
His only critique was that students misread the blood spatter. The husband had attacked her from the front, after trying to poison her. They thought she’d been clubbed from behind.
Mata, who laid still on the cold floor for an hour acting the part of the victim, said she might like to become a police officer. She’s about one-third of the way through the two-year program.