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Solving a murder mystery

8:40:54 PM CDT - Thursday, March 13, 2003

By Amy Geiszler-Jones

Sometime between the afternoon of Feb. 17 and the morning of Feb. 18, someone murdered the dean of WSU's liberal arts and sciences college in his Lindquist Hall office.

But you won't find Wichita's finest or WSU's police on the trail of the killer. Instead, more than 100 students are investigating the case.

Solving the "murder" of Bill Bischoff and holding a trial of anyone accused of the "crime" is part of a nearly semester-long project of students in Brian Withrow's homicide investigations class.

"I didn't want to lecture and show pictures of dead bodies," says Withrow, about why his students are solving a fictional whodunit in his first semester teaching the criminal justice class. "Anybody can pull up slides of dead bodies and crime scenes. They can watch TV and see that."

Instead, Withrow, who spent 13 years as a state trooper in Texas, created a murder mystery for his class to solve. Bischoff volunteered to be "the victim" when he heard about the project.

Withrow's graduate assistant, Brandon Redetzke, agreed to be one of the suspects "Brandon Smith," a disgruntled student whose baseball scholarship is being revoked by Bischoff for bad grades.

Smith and faculty member "Wilton James," aka Withrow, are two major suspects. Smith had a meeting with Bischoff at 3:30 p.m. Feb. 17, while James was to meet with Bischoff later that day to argue about not receiving a merit raise. Bischoff was alone in the office, having sent his staff home at 3 p.m. Feb. 17 because of inclement weather. According to the mystery scenario, staff member Steve McCann discovered Bischoff's "body" the next morning, slumped over his desk after suffering blunt force trauma to the head.

Students in the class have been assigned various roles for the case. Some were the police officers who responded to the initial 911 call. Others are investigators, lab technicians, crime scene technicians, defense attorneys, prosecutors, judges and jurors. Withrow generates the "lab reports" on the "evidence."

What the students are learning is the process and mechanics of an investigation, says Withrow, an assistant professor. They're learning how to keep up with evidence and reports so a case isn't blown.

Students seem to revel in the opportunity to do some "hands-on" work.

During a recent class meeting, while an "investigator" reported on her questioning of suspect Smith, one student excitedly whispered, "Man, this is just like 'Law and Order,'" referring to the popular TV series.

Students are keeping journals, jotting down the progress of the case.

"I probably get 15 e-mails a day," says Withrow, from students inquiring how to interpret findings or what to do next.

"The hardest thing is keeping them from going too far," he says. "One gal wanted to go to the dean's house and search it. I had to remind her it's make-believe."

A former student of Withrow's who errantly wandered into the crime scene in 200 Lindquist Hall to ask his Withrow what was going on found himself on the suspect list for a short time. The student investigators questioned him and went as far as verifying his alibi of being in a class taught by another criminal justice professor.

When the class meets to talk about developments in the case, Withrow discusses procedures and tactics used in investigations.

After student investigator Angel Rolfe reported on her interview with an agitated and hostile Smith, most of the students felt Smith's statements made him suspect number one and wanted him questioned again. Because Smith had wanted to "lawyer up" at the end of his first interview, Withrow assigned him a "lawyer" from the class.

Some students wondered about getting a search warrant at this stage, providing Withrow with a chance to talk about probable cause. One student wondered if it was OK to lie to Smith during the course of questioning and tell him he wasn't a suspect in hopes that he'll incriminate himself. Withrow's response: Where in the constitution does it say "thou shalt not lie" to a suspect?



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