In March, WUSF was the only media outlet invited to join students and agents from the FBI on a visit to a University of South Florida-run facility where researchers learn what happens to the dead when they're exposed to Florida's elements.
But USF will lose its access to the site in a few years, raising questions of both why and what’s next.
The fenced-in 3 1/2-acre field on Pasco County Sheriff's Office grounds is formally known as the Facility for Outdoor Research and Training, but it's also referred to as a "body farm."
People donate their bodies for use once they die. They’re placed in various settings around the facility so researchers can see for themselves the effects Florida’s environment, as well as various predators, have on the cadavers.
Gennifer Goad, a USF graduate student who oversees the body donation program, said in March that the younger students who visit the site are often very curious when they see their first actual cadaver in the real-life scenarios the facility presents.
“They’re always interested in, ‘Well how does the trauma impact the decomposition? What about weather? What about temperature? What about insect activity?’” she said.
“There are so many variables, and that's why we have this facility: to understand how do those variables play out and generate our understanding of the postmortem.”
But those opportunities will no longer be presented to USF students – at least at the Pasco facility.
Officials in the Sheriff's Office say they wanted to take back the land the university wasn't using for other research purposes, but claim USF wasn't interested in partnering with the groups the sheriff wanted to bring in.
Months later, Erin Kimmerle, the director of the Florida Institute of Forensic Anthropology and Applied Science at USF, still doesn't understand why an agreement couldn't be reached.
“That was very disappointing, it took a lot of years to get that (agreement) established. And even before the outdoor facility, we had always had a really great relationship, when Sheriff Bob White was there for example,” said Kimmerle. “Our work with them on (crime) scenes and in active homicide cases has been (good) over the last 14 years, so it's difficult.”
Compounding her frustration is that the facility meant so much to research opportunities not just for USF students and local law enforcement, but for forensic-related learners around the region, nation and world.
“What we've tried to make clear…is that this entire program, like our institute is open for research,” she said. “We have individuals from other universities, in fact, three different states here doing research, they fly in, they do it and/or we collect data based on their protocol.”
NOTE: Video includes graphic content.
In addition, once the researchers are done with the cadavers in the field, the remains become part of the institute’s skeletal collection – another learning tool.
“People sometimes forget that, but this is a permanent collection,” said Kimmerle. “We're anthropologists, human biologists, biological anthropologists, (all) can come and study and it's absolutely open first for research.”
Kimmerle added that some families that have donated their loved ones’ remains have expressed worries – but she wants to allay their fears.
“The Donation Program is absolutely still up and running,” she said. “We're growing. We're accepting pre-donors, people who want to sign up and donate in the future, and donations are coming in all the time.”
While she acknowledges it’s a devastating blow, Kimmerle said the fact that the contract doesn’t end until 2022 gives USF and Institute the opportunity to find a new site.
“We have been searching for a new space,” she said. “We'll have that up and running and ultimately transition everybody over. I think everyone here in our lab and from (USF College of Arts and Sciences) Dean Eisenberg (down) has been totally in support of doing this. We're very dedicated to getting a new location.”
USF’s efforts to get a research facility have been challenging to say the least:
- Original plans to build on Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office property in Lithia were cancelled in April 2015 over concerns from nearby residents about possible smells and groundwater contamination.
- In 2017, funding for the Pasco facility was cut from the state budget by then-Gov. Rick Scott.
- Now, the termination of the Pasco contract.
Kimmerle finds at least a small reason to smile about the seemingly never-ending series of trials.
“It's almost like we need a sociologist or a cultural anthropologist to come in to do a study,” she laughed. “Initially in Hillsborough County, there was sort of a misunderstanding among some people in the community and they thought, ‘Oh, this is going to be negative and we don't want it,’ like ‘not in my backyard.’”
“And then we found a lot of support in Pasco to the point where I thought it was interesting, I think it was the county commissioners (who) were pretty clear when they ended our existing contract that (they said), ‘Hey, we're going to keep doing this, we're going to have our own body farm, just not with you,’” she said. “So it's like such a great idea, they took it and ran.”
“But we know it's a good idea, it’s successful. It has huge impact in the way in which forensic science can operate on a really local level,” said Kimmerle. “Every state should have a facility like this because it's not just your environment is different - it's training, it's getting your local crime scene investigators and others up to speed on current methods, and it gives that skeletal collection which is invaluable for human identification research.”