A "body farm" where researchers can study how corpses decompose will open next week in the Tampa Bay area with the burial of four donated bodies.
Officials from Pasco County and the University of South Florida attended a dedication ceremony Friday for the Adam Kennedy Forensics Field, a three and a half acre patch of land on the grounds of the Pasco Sheriff's detention facility in Land O' Lakes, just north of Tampa.
It's the seventh such facility in the nation and the first in Florida's subtropical environment. The oldest and most famous body farm in the U.S. is at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.
Officials hope the farm, to be used at first by detectives and forensic anthropologists at nearby USF, will draw scientists from other countries and grow to be the largest in the world.
"Our forensic crime scene investigators will get premium training as a result of this," former Pasco County Sheriff Bob White says. "This will enhance our training tenfold."
Dr. Erin Kimmerle is director of the Florida Institute of Forensic Anthropology and Applied Science at USF. She predicts that by studying how bodies react in Florida's sweltering humidity, more evidence will be preserved and breakthroughs made in real-life-cases. The research also would benefit other countries with subtropical and tropical climates, she said.
Bodies are obtained by donation. The first four will be buried next week, and in January, Kimmerle and other researchers will hold a course for detectives on exhumation.
Later, other bodies will be exposed to water and buried during different seasons to determine how different factors affect decomposition and evidence. After the bodies are studied, the skeletons will be cleaned and preserved and made available for future research.
"The legacy of the donations, it is forever," Kimmerle said.
About 30 people have already filled out paperwork to donate their bodies to the farm when they die. Kimmerle said if someone who wants to donate dies within 200 miles of the facility, researchers will pick up the body at no cost. Anyone beyond that range would have to pay for their body to be transported to the facility.
People interested in donating can contact the Institute through its website or by calling 813-974-4219.
While the center is currently a field and grove of trees near the Pasco County Jail, officials eventually hope to build an indoor-outdoor training center. The Thomas Varnadoe Forensic Center for Education and Research would include classrooms, a morgue, a training facility and evidence storage.
The Center is named after Thomas Varnadoe, 13, who died in 1934 under mysterious circumstances at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys. Varnadoe was one of more than 50 boys whose remains were buried on the grounds of the Florida Panhandle reform school, only to be exhumed and identified through work by Kimmerle and other investigators.
The Florida Legislature tucked $4.3 million for the facility in this year's state budget, but it's unclear whether Gov. Rick Scott will approve either the funding or the entire budget.
Kimmerle said backers of the project are "all in" even if Scott vetoes it.
"Our plan, no matter whether we get the funding this session or not, is to keep moving forward with it," Kimmerle said. "The Sheriff's Office will be putting up money for some of the other buildings, because there's actually multiple buildings planned for out here. And so whether it's fundraising and through USF and the Sheriff's Office, I mean the idea is that we're definitely moving forward."
Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco added that he and other lawmakers have spoken to Scott and they've received no signs that he would nix their funding.
"Everything that we're doing here aligns with what he wants," Nocco said. "This puts Florida on the map: first (center) in the southeast besides Tennessee. This supports law enforcement across the entire state, it's going to make us safer. And third, economic development - this is going to provide jobs in our county and throughout the region."
For now, researchers are concentrating on the science. The field is named after one of the people who will be buried next week.
Adam Kennedy, a 46-year-old principal at a local elementary school, died in a car wreck in January. His widow Abigail Kennedy said her husband always wanted to donate his body to science. On Friday, she spoke to a crowd at the forensics field.
"Adam started his teaching career at USF and will continue to do so through this program for years to come," she said. "There's so much bittersweet in all of this. Adam wanted to continue teaching after his death. It would be my last gift to education, he'd say. This couldn't be more perfect."