My interview with Terri Armenta proved a fascinating and educational investment of my time. She is intelligent, experienced, and witty. Armenta is also an animal lover, she has two cats, Madison and Murray, and two dogs, Chips and Izzy. If you want to get to her heart, Terri says, “Give me some chocolate chip cookies—but in moderation.”
Back when she was scooping ice cream at a local joint called Thrifty’s, Terri decided she wanted to study pre-med. As a young person, she also volunteered at animal shelters, veterinary clinics, and hospitals, gaining a lot of knowledge that would help her in her future.
Terri is a proponent of volunteerism, saying, “It’s a great way to give back to your community while you figure out what it is you want to do. At ages sixteen, seventeen, or eighteen, you can build up your resume, helping you get ready for college and a career.”
Armenta loves science, chemistry, and what science can do. This naturally wired appeal, is what ultimately drew her to work in forensics.
What shifted Terri’s interest from general science to forensic science started from an old crime-solving show called Columbo. With her dad, she watched the rumpled, slow-talking Columbo use details, facts, and scientific evidence to solve mysteries. Armenta didn’t yet realize just what those evenings on the couch were sparking.
At first, Terri thought a medical career was the right choice for her, so she resolved to follow the long track that would lead to saving lives. But by pre-med, Terri was getting burned out with school, so she went to a job fair with her sister, where they were promoting a new Forensic Identification Program. She immediately and completely fell in love with it. Armenta wanted to dip her toes into this deeper world of investigation, so she took a leave of absence from her medical studies to take the classes for this new program.
While there, she realized two things:
1. She was on the wrong career path. Terri was more passionate about the study of death than interested in saving people.
2. She was completely hooked on this new thing called Forensic Science.
She knew she’d found her calling. Terri graduated, and four months later, the founder of that program contacted her.
He said, “We’re going to put together a DNA module, are you interested in being part of it?”
Without hesitation, Terri said, “Absolutely.”
Though DNA instruction wasn’t directly related to the various forensic positions Terri was applying for, it did launch the teaching side of what she does today. She says, “You never know what will happen in life. What looks like a trade-off may simply take you to what you are really going to love.”
Terri’s start in what she calls, “the fun of forensic science,” seemed at first like a detour, when in fact, it was the destination.
As a natural extrovert, Terri loves creating curriculum and teaching her students. She also knows the teacher must always study harder than the student, you cannot teach what you have not learned well. Teaching has led her to take many other specialized courses and training, so she could become more skilled in teaching what she needed to know. It also took her deeper into the law enforcement and forensic world, providing professional proof, something Terri says, “Every person studying forensic science needs.”
The Forensic Science Academy, Terri’s current passion and focus, is a nationally accredited, six month, 200-hour hands-on training program, in Southern California. It was developed from another identification program that was handed over to Armenta around 2010, when its founder retired. Terri grabbed that career opportunity and built on it. She created online classes, while enhancing the on-site hands-on trainings.
Today, the Forensic Science Academy has six training modules offered on weekends over a six-month period. You can take the following trainings as part of a whole certification process, or individually, to educate yourself about specific skills, or reinforce them.
• Basic Crime Scene Investigation
• Advanced Crime Scene Investigation
• Fingerprint Identification
• Fingerprint Classification
• Death Investigation
• Crime Scene Photography
One of the things Arment prides herself on is cooperation and collaboration. The Forensic Science Academy works in conjunction with other courses, like those offered through the Death Investigator Training Academy, to educate, improve, and enhance the skills of those who investigate and crime-solve deaths.
Terri says, “It’s important not to feel threatened by those who are newly coming into the forensic field, instead, we need to work with them, and train them the right way, so they can learn like we did. We all need to join forces to create forensic consistency.”
Armenta encourages taking as many classes as possible, so investigators can make themselves well-rounded and marketable. She says, “Sometimes you think you only need one module, but by taking other classes, you learn more. Diversity can open doors, helping you get where you want a different way, or helping you get there faster. It also helps you do the job better, when you understand what others did before your part in the analytical process, or what investigators will do after you.”
I couldn’t agree more. We’re all part of the same team. In my work as a death investigator, both from the law enforcement and coroner perspectives I’ve found you may not be the one cordoning off an area, but you need to understand all aspects of what happens at a scene or in the lab by others.
When it comes to forensic education, Armenta has had a variety of students. She said, “Each person has their own reasons for taking training programs. I’ve had a thirty-five year investigator take a course, to enhance his underwater search work. A screenwriter wanted to become more knowledgeable about writing scenes for forensic crime shows and movies. The majority are death or crime scene investigators, but while they’re taking the classes, I’ll see something inside them click. They suddenly realize they have hidden passions and they want to unearth them. They see opportunities they were not aware of, in a forensic related field.”
I asked about student successes, from those who’ve completed the Forensic Science Academy course. Terri’s excitement couldn’t be contained.
“Some have started their own PI businesses, some have entered the medical field, some have become pathologists, everyone has their own specific reasons. These courses introduce them to what they ultimately want to achieve. Multiple graduates have been hired as crime scene investigators. A screenplay writer had two movies come out. A forensic nurse came through my course. And some students have went on to become teachers. Success is defined by the individual’s desires and passions.”
Armenta, like myself, has an inner drive to train as many investigators as possible, in uniform methods. She’s even had a student from Belgium sign up, who relocated to Southern California. More and more, inquiries are coming in from other countries, because of the need for field agents to receive consistent, reliable, and well-rounded teaching. The challenge for them is the six-month commitment.
The importance of teaching solid systems and predictable methods from a reputable source, is something most in the death investigative industry agree we need. The job of taking that training to different states and various regions, to meet the need for consistent and well-educated investigators, is not easy. But it is something Terri Armenta commits herself to daily. As a fellow advocate, I applaud her.
Forensic science mostly happens behind-the-scenes we work, but our findings impact the public in many ways. Families and friends of the deceased are affected. Court rulings are influenced. Careers are shaped. And we are defined, by how well we do the work we do. Facts are waiting on us to reveal them and people are counting on us to give them answers. For death investigators, we can’t afford to get things wrong, proper training is how we get our conclusions right.