OGDEN — Forensics can bring life to the scene of death.
Bugs help determine how long a body has been cold. Teeth can be matched with old dental records to identify a person. Blood spatter can explain how someone was shot.
Forensics is not for the faint-hearted. The blood, guts and gore of forensics are part of what attracted Weber State University student Heather Tezak to major in criminalistics.
"It was probably the blood. The blood patterns. You can tell (the type) of gun by splatter, the fine mist," she said.
That also may explain the popularity of the CBS show "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," said Mitch Pilkington, an investigator with the Weber Metro Crime Scene Investigation Unit, which processes evidence for crimes in Ogden and surrounding areas.
"I really think people are kind of into the things that would typically be gory or unsuitable for television. If you do it for the name of science, then it's OK. Everyone's interested in the darker side of humanity," said Pilkington, also a graduate student who is comparing the TV program and real life for his master's project in criminal justice at Weber.
Since "CSI" debuted in 2000, the number of inquiries about Weber's criminalistics undergraduate program, the only one in Utah and one of the oldest in the United States, has increased, said James Gaskill, head of the program.
"I probably get a call or e-mail once a week," he said. Before the show, he received that many per month. Most prospective students shy away, however, when Gaskill informs them of the chemistry, biology and genetics courses needed for the degree.
In Gaskill's lower-division class, students are assigned to watch "CSI" and list 10 inaccuracies and five accuracies with the show, which is based on real-life situations.
"The single biggest complaint we have against (the show) is they do everything," from collecting evidence to interrogating suspects, he said. In reality, most crime scene investigators are civilian employees of police departments.
"The main reason I don't watch 'CSI' is they never mark or identify evidence. There's no paperwork. Their evidence would be thrown out in court" in the real world, Gaskill said.
Pilkington calls his master's project a "descriptive study" of the first 23 episodes of CSI. He also found several inaccuracies on TV. "There is no wait time. There is no paperwork. There are no budget constraints."
However, the technology the TV investigators use is accurate. "The technology does exist, but it's applied inaccurately," Pilkington said.
He laughs when the actors use the "blue light," which is similar to what real-life investigators call "alternative light." It is beamed on evidence that cannot be removed from the scene and can shine on evidence that light waves from other light sources conceal.
"They flash it at every scene (on TV). It's kind of funny," Pilkington said. "It's not dramatic enough, so they'll shine their blue light around it. They act like, 'Oh, I can see it so much better.' In reality, it's dark and you can't see at all."
The rays from blue lights absorb blood. Blue lights primarily are used to detect hair, fibers and body fluids, he said.
The sub-plots involving the personal lives of characters in TV land are much more exciting than you're likely to find in real life, too.
"We're a bunch of boring people. We're just science nerds," Pilkington said.
Gaskill makes sure his students know their careers will be different from the television program. Students in the criminalistics program, one of the undergraduate criminal justice programs at WSU, learn how to analyze hair, fiber, guns, blood and fingerprints. The first DNA class will be taught next semester.
In an upper-division, year-long forensics course, he recently lectured for about two hours on differences between single- and double-action revolvers, the advantages and disadvantages of using semiautomatic and automatic weapons. The students will need to memorize dozens of different weapons and their features for an upcoming exam.
He showed students his own locked breach shotgun. "Next to my wife and children, this is my favorite thing in the world," he joked.
Although the topic may seem boring, he reminded his students they'll need to know about hunting rifles if they are investigating a poaching case. The more specific the soon-to-be investigators can pinpoint a gun by its type, year and model, the higher the chance of solving a crime, he said.
Raquel Adams entered the program before the television show. "I like to solve things. I like to solve mysteries. It's interesting to look at hair and know if it's animal or human," she said.
Adams, who will graduate next year, is a bit worried about finding a job. Gaskill tells his students there are plenty of jobs, but most are outside Utah. Utah, where the crime rate is generally low, only has a handful of crime labs. Salaries range from $35,000-$40,000 a year, Gaskill said.
Tezak, who will graduate in a year, is excited to leave Utah and launch her career: "It seems that this is something that could help other people."