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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.

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