CullmanTimes.com - Cullman, Alabama

Education

May 6, 2013

Extra class turns into a career for Thea Hall

As sometimes happens, Thea Hall found her niche in life through mere happenstance.

Attending Wallace State Community College with the intention of becoming a radiologist, Hall needed an extra class. “I thought it might be something like pottery or another elective, but my adviser talked me into taking a class in criminal justice.”

Hall was 28 years old when she enrolled at WSCC. Previously she had been a machine operator at Lee Jeans in Albertville. “I sewed blue jeans for fourteen-and-a-half years after graduating from high school,” said Hall. “But the last several of those years I realized that there had to be something more to life than that.”

She came out of the plant with the determination to prove that theory and did she ever accomplish what she set out to do — and much more.

Hall holds four degrees from WSCC, criminal justice, criminalistics (which is now known as forensic science) law enforcement, and science.

She attained her degrees in forensics and forensic investigation from Jacksonville State University, then added more degrees in biology and chemistry from the University of Alabama in Birmingham and from Athens State College.

She went on to earn her master’s degree in justice studies from Auburn University, and is now working on her PhD, with a dissertation on DNA. “Hopefully, I’ll finally finish in June of this year,” she smiled.

She has studied her craft in exotic places, like Hawaii, and in big metropolises, like Dallas and Atlanta, where she did her residency. In 1998, after graduating from Jacksonville State College, she did her internship with the Hanceville Police Department for one year. In 2000, she interned for another year at the Alabama State Forensics Lab in Jacksonville, under the direction of Mark Hopwood and John Case.

In 2004, Hall did a one year stint with the Alabama Bureau of Investigation in Montgomery, focusing on fingerprint technology under Gloria Walters.

As one of 13 honor students in criminal justice at Jacksonville State, she was chosen to be part of a group sent to London, England to study at Scotland Yard. While there she visited some of the most famous crime museums in the world.

The group also visited Amsterdam, including the infamous Red Light district. “When we left it felt like leaving Sodom and Gomorrah,” said Hall. “Every day about 4:45 a.m. we saw kids as young as 15 years old who were already alcoholics and drug addicts. It just goes to show what happens in a society where there are no morals.”

But perhaps her most intriguing studies were done in 2001, when she studied at another sort of university. Called the body farm, it is located in the wilds of the Tennessee hills. As the name implies, there are bodies there.

You might have heard of the body farm, or seen it on crime shows on television. It is a training facility for investigators and forensic scientists. Among other things, students are immersed in techniques like judging the age of maggots and their larvae to gauge how long a body has been exposed to the elements. They work with actual cadavers.

For Hall, it is a fascinating profession. What really hooked her though, wasn’t the drama of the CSI (crime scene investigation) television shows, or the thrill of the hunt. It was the realization that she could make a difference in the lives of victims, or the lives of their families so that they could have closure in the event of a death.

“I never thought about being a cop until I took that class,” she mused. “I was old-fashioned and didn’t know much about anything. I even called my husband, Kermit, when my instructor explained that I might be the only woman in a classroom full of men.” (There were in fact, other women in the class, and Hall says that they were treated with the utmost respect by the male students and instructors).

“He told me to go for it, to do what I had to do,” she recalled. “He has always been very supportive of my career.”

At one point her ranking officer in the sherriff’s office had her bring her husband in to talk with him. “You do realize that there might come a day when I have to call you and tell you that she won’t be coming home, don’t you?” he asked Kermit Hall.

They always knew that her job was not without its dangers, but they made the decision together that she would pursue her dream.

The Halls have been happily married for 28 years. They have two children, Malai, 25, and Ethan, 23, and two grandchildren.

She credits that support, as well as the guidance of her instructors, especially Ed Lee, for giving her the incentive to pursue what has become her passion. “Mr. Lee taught me well,” she said. “It was his experience and love as well as his passion for it, that he passed on to me.”

Her very first case was someone she knew. “When they came to get me at the ball field I was sitting with the family of a 16-year-old suicide,” she recalled. It taught her that she had to be as strong as steel if she wanted to succeed in this type of profession.

These days Hall trains officers as crime scene technicians. “They are normally the first ones on the scene, so it is vitally important that they know how to preserve evidence.”

In an effort to teach her students, Hall employs some of the same methods she learned early on at the body farm — she grows maggots.

The “hobby” has earned her the nickname, “the Maggot Lady” by WSCC President Vicki Hawsey, who said “I recall the first conversation Thea and I had when I arrived at Wallace State in 2003. She was describing her love of the criminal justice profession, her dreams for the future, and the class projects she used for project-based learning with her students. She was describing the process of intentionally growing maggots and using their life cycle to predict the time of death. I’d never seen someone so enthused over those little creatures. She truly loves her profession and seeing her students succeed both in the classroom and in their profession. She is a sought-after expert in DNA and crime scene investigation, and we are fortunate to have her at Wallace State.”

Hall isn't squeamish when it comes to her classes in the biological process of decomposition. “I use rotted meat containing toxins. These samples are out in the elements so that flies will lay their eggs in it,” Hall explained. “Then I teach the students the life cycle of the larvae and the adult insects so that they can judge how long a cadaver has been outside. It not only helps them judge the cause of death, but the time of death can also be judged by the stage of the insects.”

Studying the life cycle of these insects has become a tool for convicting felons who might otherwise have gotten away with some heinous crimes. “It plays a huge part in convicting someone,” Hall said. Her dedication to the field of criminal justice and forensic investigation has even earned her a spot on America's Most Wanted.

In the segment, her expertise in fingerprinting was a pivotal point in bringing a fugitive (who had been on the run for 15 years) to justice. Behind the scenes experts, like Hall, are the often the unsung heroes of cases where a conviction hinges on one crucial piece of forensic evidence. They may not be shown taking the perpetrator out in handcuffs, but it is their years of scientific studies that frequently provide proof beyond a shadow of a doubt.

Now, the skills she teaches in the classroom aid in attaining such convictions. “I mainly teach fingerprinting analysis and shoe impressions,” Hall explained.

In addition to those skills she also teaches her students to be proficient in hair, blood and fiber sample analysis. They will also learn to analyze tire impressions, bite marks, and the science of entomology (insects) as well as crime scene photography.

“When they graduate from this class they can go to work in most states as a forensic scientist, however, in Alabama, they have to be a member of a law enforcement agency for about three years before they can go into forensic investigation,” Hall noted.

Someone once told Thea Hall that she was not college material. Now, 34 years later, she reflects on her career, “I hope that I have proven that prediction wrong. Everyone needs someone to believe in them. For me, that person was Dr. Ed Lee. I wouldn’t be where I am today if he hadn’t seen something worthwhile in me.”

Not only has she made a difference in the lives of many families of victims and of her students, she has made a difference in society as a whole, training scores of students who make life a little safer for all of us.

Thea Hall is proof positive that one person can make a difference. Her resolve to succeed is an example to every person who finds themselves without a job, or those who are seeking a new direction in life. Hers is a story of courage, determination and the true grit that is a trait of successful people who have had to climb up through the ranks of any profession. She is a steele magnolia in the truest sense of the term.

1
Text Only
Education
  • WSCC CLT program celebrates MLP week 1.jpg Wallace State CLT program celebrates Medical Laboratory Professionals Week

    You never see them, but medical laboratory technicians play a vital role in the healthcare process. They are the ones who run tests on the specimens you provide, which help doctors confirm diagnoses and plan a course of treatment.
     

    April 23, 2014 2 Photos

  • WES jump-rope for heart 1.jpg West Elementary Jump Rope for Heart Event

    The West Elementary Jump Rope for Heart event was held the entire month of February.

    April 23, 2014 2 Photos

  • East Elementary School to present ‘Oklahoma’ (VIDEO)

    April 22, 2014

  • Holly Pond Elementary's third nine-week honor roll

    HOLLY POND ELEMENTARY
    Third Nine Weeks
    All As
    • First Grade: Adrian Chan, Diego Arreguin, Sarah Brown, Corey Cummings, Gabrielle Hallmark, Jayda Miller, Ben Raley, Blake Rickard, Jose Aguilar, Kevin Davis, John Garcia, Sadie Graham, Dixie Ledlow, Kaecey Loyd, Anya Bolzle, Joseph Farris, Megan Fry, Carter Longshore, Alexis Millican, Westin O’Ryan, Courtney Parker, Kaden Smith, Libby Stallings, Silas Baty, Maddie Clayton, John Frasier, Jacob Hays, Tatum Mayfield, Aubrey Smith
     

    April 21, 2014

  • Welti Elementary's third nine weeks honor roll

    WELTI Elementary
    Third Nine Weeks
    All As
    ‰ First Grade: Tatum Brown, Olivia Butler, Jackson Cleveland, Kiley Crenshaw, L.J. Culwell, Isaiah Folds, Makenzie Fowler, Levi Kelso, Camara Marks, Ashlynn Massey, Jeremiah Oglesby, Shawn Sanford, Kane South, Olivia Stallings, Haley Tyree
     

    April 21, 2014

  • Winston County Technology Center Wins AAA/Ford Auto Skills State Championship

    Twenty high school automotive students from across the state turned out in hopes of tuning out the competition today in the State Finals of the Ford/AAA Student Auto Skills competition. The students fought for scholarships in the automotive industry and for the chance to advance to the National Finals, which take place at Ford World Headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan. The competition, which is geared toward students looking to jumpstart their careers in the automotive industry, is especially relevant for today’s struggling economy, in which car owners are putting more money into car repair and maintenance as a way of avoiding the big-ticket purchase of a new car.

    April 16, 2014

  • Variety of classes offered during Homeschool Spring Workshops

    Wallace State Community College’s Continuing Education Department has a full slate of classes to offer homeschool students this spring with the second session as a continuation of the first session.
     

    April 14, 2014

  • WSCC invesTECHgate 1.jpg Wallace State to host approximately 600 high school juniors during ‘InvesTECHgate’ week beginning April 14   

    Wallace State Community College will host its third annual “InvesTECHgate” week beginning April 14, and this year’s event should be the biggest draw yet.
    Various Wallace State technical programs are set to be flooded with approximately 600 high school juniors from Blount, Cullman and Morgan Counties. InvesTECHgate allows high school students who may be interested in pursuing a career in the technical field to get an in-depth look at those programs on the collegiate level.
     

    April 10, 2014 2 Photos

  • WSCC Ponder named gold scholar.jpg Wallace State Sophomore Ponder named 2014 Coca-Cola Community College Academic Team Gold Scholar

    Levi Ponder, a 2012 Vinemont graduate, is one of only 50 Gold Scholars among qualified candidates across 38 states, standing out among more than 1,700 applicants. The Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society administers the Coca-Cola Community College Academic team and it will recognize Ponder at the Phi Theta Kappa National Convention on Friday, April 26 in Orlando, Fla.
     

    April 9, 2014 1 Photo

  • Commentary: At many leading schools, football fails to make cut

    To my astonishment, 67 of the top 100 schools, ranked by participation in college-level tests, said they do not field a team, denoting a shift in American high school culture, at least in those schools that challenge their students most.

    April 7, 2014