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USF Pulls Forensic Research Facility Plan

USF Anthropology Professor Erin Kimmerle talks to reporters Thursday about the proposed research facility.
Credit Mark Schreiner / WUSF 89.7 News

The University of South Florida announced late Friday afternoon that the USF Forensic Anthropology Laboratory will find an alternate location to train students and law enforcement to process human remains in outdoor crime scenes.

The Facility for Outdoor Experimental Research and Training (FORT) program was proposed on Hillsborough County Sheriffs property in Lithia, but an outcry from residents about possible smells, groundwater contamination and property values prompted a change in plans.

The university said in a statement that “the residents of Lithia made themselves clear.  As a result of this community meeting, USF has decided not to pursue the FORT program in Lithia.”

Residents made their comments at a public meeting Thursday night at Pinecrest Elementary School. The nearest residence to the parcel of land is half a mile away.

The two-acre secured site is part of the 230-acre training grounds of the Sheriff's Office.

Currently, students are using plastic skeletons to train on. Speaking to reporters earlier this week, USF Anthropology professor Erin Kimmerle said that real bones aren't pure white like fake ones are. 

"Bones take on the color of their environment, so they become the color of the soil if there's leaves and vegetation," she said. "Or if they're in the sun, there's sun bleaching."

USF said it will find an alternate location to teach current and budding forensic investigators how corpses decompose in Florida’s hot, humid weather. Similar research facilities exist in states like Tennessee, Massachusetts and Colorado but those facilities can’t teach investigators about Florida's climate, soil and vegetation.

“The research and training this facility offers will be a valuable tool in identifying missing persons and solving violent crimes,” said Major Robert Ura with HCSO’s Criminal Investigations Division.”

“Although the benefits to having a facility are numerous, they do not outweigh the concerns of the citizens of Southeast Hillsborough County.” 

The facility, which would be the first of its kind in Florida, has backing from law enforcement both locally and statewide, as well as state Attorney General Pam Bondi. It also has financial support from donors - public funds would not be needed for maintenance of the facility.

They’ve also received public support in an unusual manner: so far, 33 people have volunteered to donate their bodies to USF for use at the facility after they die. After being used in research at the facility, those remains would be placed in the USF Donated Skeletal Collection for further research.