Detectives from around the country visit Baltimore to study crime scene investigation

BALTIMORE - Marie Jones's neighbors hadn't heard from her in almost two days. 

Jones was a prostitute, but she had friends -- people who cared and were concerned.  When her landlord knocked on her door, the story started to unfold. 

The door was unlocked. Drawers had been rummaged through. There were obvious signs of drinking and smoking.  When Jones's landlord opened the closet she found her body.  Her throat was slashed. There was a bloody knife nearby. 

On the surface it looked like a suicide, but detectives saw something more.

"You also have a stain on the rug,” Baltimore County Detective Gary Childs said looking over the evidence. “So it looks like the person went from over here by the chair toward...looks like you have blood right outside the door there."

Detectives saw the story told by Jones's date that night wasn't adding up. 

He claimed she was really drunk and took her own life in the closet, but clues in her apartment tell an even more violent story.

"It's more consistent with something occurring over near the chair and her ending up in the room, and then -- see the drawers, all the drawers are open like someone was searching for something," Childs said, reading the scene of the crime.

Childs works in the homicide unit for Baltimore County, and once worked for Baltimore City. He thinks Jones was murdered by her date. That is the story in a “nutshell” anyway.

The “nutshells” are miniaturized, highly-detailed crime scenes, encased in glass and housed at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

 "It is really extraordinary to see the way these homicide detectives take to these,” Bruce Goldfarb, special assistant to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, said. “You think of hard boiled detectives and being all seasoned and cynical but you know, they totally and absolutely get into it."

There are 19 nutshells in total. Each scene tells the story of a violent death, either by accident, suicide or murder. The shells are used as training tools for detectives across the country who visit Baltimore to try their hand at deducing the cause of death for tiny, ornate figurines.

"The essences of a forensic investigation are unchanged and it begins with observing the scene, the crime scene. So this is the essence of death investigation," Goldfarb said.

Francis Glessner Lee created these scenes in the 1930s and 40s. The millionaire heiress spent the later part of her life creating the shadow boxes of unexplained death based on true stories of the day. 

The detail is so extraordinary she had a specialty carpenter on staff to create the virtual reality before anyone knew of such a thing.

"She hand whittled clothes pins. She hand rolled tiny little cigarettes. The light switches go up and down. The latch on the cabinets work and these sorts of things that really work toward helping you suspend disbelief and get immersed and surrounded into it," Goldfarb said.           

The purpose is to train homicide detectives back when there was no training.  All part of a homicide seminar, held once a year, first at Harvard and since Lee's death, now here in Maryland.  Police from around the world attend the week long course.  They are assigned a nutshell and must eventually solve the case. 

There is only one person who knows what happened in all of these scenes, administrator Jerry Dziecichowicz.

“I will make sure before they put that on my tombstone, 'the nutshell man,' that they are passed on for generations to enjoy," he said.

For 70 years the solutions have been under lock and key, with just one person entrusted to know Glessner Lee's story behind each nutshell. 

They are protected so thousands of detectives could experience and learn from them.

"You just don't look at something once and you walk away and say got it, you're forced to look at it more than once and go over it and make sure," Dziecichowicz said.

From the tiny rip-away calendars on the wall, to the custom linens on the bed, to fruit on the table and the view out the window, detectives solve crimes today, with the clues of yesterday.

"People focus on how old they are but really they are not that far removed from how people live today. I mean if you put a TV set, cell phones and computers in a couple of these things it might pass for how people live today,” Goldfarb said. “It is not that much different.  Some things don't change and unfortunately violent death is one of them.”

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