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USF Forensic Facility Teaches How Florida's Environment Affects Bodies

Since 2006, the University of South Florida has brought together FBI agents and students studying to become forensic investigators for a field training day.

In earlier versions, they’d meet on the Tampa campus or on the nearby grounds of MOSI and look at how the bodies of buried pigs decompose in Florida’s climate. But for the past few years, they’ve actually had a dedicated field – and real human bodies – to study.

The location is the Facility for Outdoor Research and Training, or FORT. 

It’s a fenced-in three and a half-acre field on ground donated by the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office, and the subjects are people who chose to give their bodies to forensic research after their deaths. The field is named for Adam Kennedy, a local elementary school principal who became one of the first donors in 2017.

It’s also known as a ‘body farm’ because the cadavers are placed in various settings throughout the field so visitors - both students and law enforcement from across the state and country - can observe for themselves the effects our subtropical environment has on the bodies. It's the seventh such facility in the nation and the first in Florida.

Forensic anthropologist Erin Kimmerle is the director of the Florida Institute of Forensic Anthropology and Applied Science at USF, which operates the facility.

“I think the way in which people learn best is hands-on and very practical. And I think that being able to be out here and work with real human cadavers and integrate the research that we've been doing into the training is critical,” she said.

“We have individuals who are laid out on the surface that allows us to look at daily changes. We take photographs and collect data on the different ways in which the body changes,” said Kimmerle. “We have USF ecologists, geologists, geophysicists, they all are out here, looking at the soil, the water, the plants, the ways in which elements in the body dissipate into the soil and groundwater, how does that change over time?'

“Decomposing or buried bodies will kill the vegetation and the vegetation comes back. So these are things that there are scientific methods behind that allow us to estimate the time since death,” she continued. “So we have all these researchers out here every day collecting that data, and it's just that it's challenged some of the assumptions that we've made.”

During the training day, two separate sessions with multiple courses for the 45 undergraduates and dozens of FBI agents are held. WUSF was the only media outlet invited to observe.

NOTE: Video includes graphic content.

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In one section of the field, one group of students and agents circled two bodies on the surface. The naked subjects were enclosed by chicken wire to protect them from predators like the vultures that circle the field.

The undergraduates quizzed graduate student Gennifer Goad about different things they observed – the color of the skin and fluid, the color of the grass around the bodies, even the flies and other insects that are surrounding the bodies – all in an effort to determine how long the subjects had been in the field.

There was an odor of decomposition in the air, but if it was bothering any of the students, they didn't show it, instead furiously scribbling their observations on notepads.

“They're always really interested in ‘Well, how does 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.”

Goad did her undergraduate work at the University of Tennessee, home to the nation’s first forensic field. She compares the facilities this way:

“In Tennessee, you have very hilly region, very wooded area, you have four seasons, versus here in Florida, there’s basically two seasons: you have wet season, and you have a dry season. And we also have a swampy area in our facility. So (it helps) understanding the differences of rain, temperature, different kinds of bugs.”

A student uses total station surveying equipment to study the mock crime scene.
Credit Mark Schreiner / WUSF Public Media
WUSF Public Media
A student uses total station surveying equipment to study the mock crime scene.

And the work at the FORT during the Field Day is not just limited to scrutinizing bodies. FBI trainers set up mock crime scenes to show how investigators have to precisely log every detail.

“They're learning how to set up the perimeter of a scene and mark a scene and map it,” said Kimmerle. “And there are different ways in which we map it: hand measurements, total station (surveying), and so they’re learning some different techniques, old school hands-on, and then also technological ways to map a scene.”

She said it’s that extreme precision that surprises forensic science students more than encountering their first decomposing body does.

“You spend all day really meticulously documenting this little two-by-two meter area; it can be very tedious work. And it's not really the high drama and excitement that TV and movies make you think it is. So I think at times, they’re like ‘wow, this is just like a lot of paperwork!’”

"Evidence" at a mock crime scene set up for the Field Day.
Credit Mark Schreiner / WUSF Public Media
WUSF Public Media
"Evidence" at a mock crime scene set up for the Field Day.

But she adds that this kind of well-rounded personal experience is extremely important in a student’s learning process.

“We show them videos and photos and we talk a lot about the sort of things are doing out here, but it's never quite the same as when they get out here and see it firsthand. And I think that's what they really appreciate and love, because now it all becomes very real and they understand it in a way that just reading about it, you'll never get,” she said.  

Senior Dominick Ramirez, who is considering following in the footsteps of his father, a retired New York Police officer, agrees.

“Seeing everything go on in person was a better way for me to learn because I've always been a more hands-on person,” he said. “So I got a better idea of how everything actually goes on in investigation scenes and so I thought that was great.”

For Ramirez, the entomology lessons were the most surprising.

“I had no idea how many different species of bugs can be present on the body and how each one actually determines a different phase of time (of decomposition),” he said. “I assumed a dead body would have the flies and maggots basically, but essentially, there are different species that present themselves at different periods that tell you something like, “it's been two weeks since this has happened.”

But for classmate Tina Van, the smell of decomposition is what she took away from the experience.

“They were saying that the smell was unbearable, so I was expecting to want to run the other direction,” said Van. “But instead, I felt fairly comfortable. It was not a smell that I want to be around forever, but it is something I could cope with.”

And student Kathia Tatute said the generosity of the people who donate their bodies to this work stuck with her.

“There are actually families and people that were willing to do this, because they know it's for the betterment of our science, like it's their hope in our science to make sure that we have better research on how bodies decompose,” she said. “It’s also the fact that we're trying to give them some respect at the same time, because while we're doing this, you also have to remember they're humans at the end of the day.”

Kimmerle said, so far, 36 bodies have been donated and another 150 people are registered to donate when they die. After the bodies decompose, she said they become part of a permanent skeletal collection at USF that visiting scholars from around the country and world come to research.

“We're just incredibly grateful to the families and the donors that we have,” she said. “It's so important to be able to do this research to challenge the assumptions, the things that we think we know about crime scenes and to improve the methods of forensic research.”

People interested in donating can visit the USF Human Donation Program here.

USF forensic anthropology student Gennifer Goad, left, talks to students, including Dominick Ramirez, leaning forward, about the cadaver they're observing.
Credit Mark Schreiner / WUSF Public Media
WUSF Public Media
USF forensic anthropology student Gennifer Goad, left, talks to students, including Dominick Ramirez, leaning forward, about the cadaver they're observing.

Mark Schreiner is the assistant news director and intern coordinator for WUSF News.