November 03, 2002 11:00 pm

By Dick Mason

Observer Staff Writer

The blood wasn't real but the inquisitive looks on the faces of the 91 girls were as genuine as London's famed Scotland Yard.

The girls were investigating a mock murder scene Saturday at Eastern Oregon University's Badgley Hall. Yellow and black police tape, an outline of a body, footprints, an apparent blood stain and more gave the scene more than a hint of realism.

The site was the focal point of an investigation being conducted by 91 middle-school students from throughout Northeast Oregon. They were taking part in the Girls In Science program. The girls had been asked to solve an apparent murder case based largely on the physical evidence they found.

"It was like being at a real crime scene. It gave us insight,'' said Angela Towell, a seventh-grader at Stella Mayfield Elementary School in Elgin.

Jade Silver, a sixth-grader at Stella Mayfield, went a step further.

"It was like CSI,'' she said, referring to the CBS forensics television program.

Prior to venturing to the crime scene the girls were given basic facts about the case at McKenzie Theatre. It involved a man named Felix who had been found dead. When the police arrived, they found no external injuries and no blood on the victim's body. The body was sent to the morgue but unfortunately was stolen before an autopsy could be performed to determine how he died.

There were four murder suspects, each of whom was portrayed by an EOU theater student. The EOU students portraying the suspects were Sam Vore, Rebecca Crow,

Todd Tschida and Jennifer Bean. At the start of the program, they were introduced as suspects by EOU theater professor April Curtis, who played the role of a detective.

All four of the suspects emphatically proclaimed their innocence and gave alibis for where they were at the time of the crime.

The 91 girls were divided into small groups and conducted their examination of the crime scene. Next they tested their evidence in Badgley Hall's chemistry labs.

In the labs the students examined a stain on a brown piece of paper using an analysis process known as chromatography. The students determined that the stain was from food coloring, not blood.

A soft drink at the scene was also analyzed. It was determined that it did not have the normal acid level of cola drinks. Thus the investigators had reason to assume the drink had been tampered with before the crime.

The students also examined a handwritten letter at the scene that was signed by the character played by Crow, Vera Cruise. The students determined it had been forged and actually was written by Kendra Goode, who was played by Bean.

After three hours of lab work and investigation, four groups of students presented their conclusions at McKenzie Theatre before the four suspects and a judge, played by EOU political science professor Tonia St. Germain, who is also an attorney. Three of the groups presented arguments contending that three of the suspects were innocent. A fourth group argued that Kendra Goode was guilty.

A show of hands indicated that 95 percent of the students agreed that she was guilty. Bean then tried to run out of the auditorium but was stopped before she could leave.

None of the four performers knew who was guilty while they were sitting on the stage.

"It was suspenseful to see if you were guilty or not,'' Crow said.

Tschida, who played a suspect, agreed.

"We were almost taking bets on who was guilty,'' he said.

Vore also enjoyed the experience and had just one regret.

"We didn't get a lot of time to be characters but we had a lot of fun,'' he said.

The project was sponsored by EOU, the Northeast Oregon Area Health Education Center, the Richland Section of the American Chemical Society, the Union County Commission on Children and Families, the La Grande Branch of American Association of University Women and by the Soroptimist International of La Grande Foundation.

A curriculum on forensic science, developed by Great Explorations in Math and Science from Lawrence Hall of Science at the University of California in Berkeley, was used.

The objective of the program was to encourage girls to begin looking at careers in science.

Seventh-grader Courtney Thamert and eighth-grader Allison Burgess of Stella Mayfield agreed that the experience gave them an illuminating look at what it would be like to work as a scientist.

"I thought it would be boring but it was exciting,'' Burgess said. "It was like you were actually working for somebody.''

Elizabeth Eckstein, a seventh-grader at Stella Mayfield, also agreed that the experience had a professional feel to it.

"You felt like you were a detective,'' she said.