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Dead body farm is a lively class for cops

Outdoor Tenn. facility helps police learn clues

February 18, 2004


KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- There are bones in the bushes and corpses under trees. Decaying cadavers recline in shallow graves, awaiting discovery, exhumation and reburial, an endless cycle of death.

Rest in peace? Not these weary bones.

The Anthropology Research Facility at the University of Tennessee may be the nation's most unusual graveyard. Most people who know it at all know it by its nickname: the Body Farm.

Overlooking the scenic, winding Tennessee River, forensic science meets old-fashioned police work in an outdoor classroom. Teams of police officers, FBI agents and crime-scene investigators from around the nation gather to be trained in how to locate human remains -- and how to read the telltale signs that may ultimately reveal how, when and where a person was killed.

It's part science, part scavenger hunt. Officers wear sterile white suits and booties. White masks cover their faces, but in the summertime, the sweet, cloying smell of death is a constant reminder of what lurks.

On her first day at the Body Farm -- so dubbed by crime novelist Patricia Cornwell, who titled a book after it -- crime-scene technician Dale Allison traipsed around the property with classmates. The next day, they broke into smaller groups, each assigned to find the body concealed at a designated location.

"Our body was easy to find because an animal had dragged a large bone out of the ground," Allison said. "I thought there would be a lot of flies and bugs, but all there was around was bees."

The Body Farm -- secured by a tall, barbed-wire fence and monitored by video cameras because local kids were making midnight forays into the macabre setting -- is part of the National Forensic Academy at UT Knoxville. William Bass III, a forensic anthropologist, founded the center.

Students are sent to the academy for 10-week seminars, two days of which are spent on the Body Farm.

Bass is known throughout the forensic world for his ability to divine truths from the most cryptic skeletal remains. Working with 12 tiny bones, Bass was able to confirm -- 50 years after the fact -- that the bones purported to be those of Charles Lindbergh Jr., kidnapped and slain in 1932, were genuine.

Bass conceived the idea for the facility in 1971. It started as a 1-acre plot, formerly the site of an old pig barn. That's when forensic science was in its infancy, before fascination with the dead spawned two CSI-theme TV shows and various movies. The original location was a 45-minute trip from the campus, so Bass requested a relocation. He got his wish -- 1.5 acres nestled in a glen of maple and oak trees behind the university's medical center.

John Doe corpses end up at the Body Farm if they go unclaimed at the county morgue for more than six months. But John and Jane Does aren't the only ones who repose there. Now and again, people call Lee Jantz, curator of the Body Farm, and offer their own remains, which the doctor will pick up when the time comes.

In their time at the Body Farm, officers and crime-scene investigators learn the art of sifting through soil that may contain human remains. They are shown how to work in a grid pattern, the technique for tracing bones that may have been scattered by foraging animals, and how to find and preserve evidence that may indicate the time of death.

You can learn a lot about the time of death from examining the insects infesting a cadaver. The heavier a person is, the faster he or she decomposes. Weather also plays a crucial role in aging a corpse. In a desert climate, people tend to mummify and become leathery as time passes.

As anyone who has read a crime novel or a newspaper knows, bodies have been found in the strangest places. They turn up in refrigerator crates, in suitcases by the roadside, stuffed in storage containers, and built into hastily remodeled closet additions.

In January, Body Farm graduates Dale Allison and Sue Courtney of the Hollywood, Fla., Police Department got to try out their newfound knowledge when a prison inmate said he had killed a teenage girl and buried her in a vacant lot along a turnpike.

The crime-scene investigators dug exactly as the instructors told them. They called the author Cornwell, whom they had met and befriended at the academy last year. She has become a fixture at the Body Farm and the Hollywood Police Department, which has allowed her to go on police ride-alongs.

After police excavated for two days, the prisoner confessed that it was a hoax.

Allison and Courtney had to call Cornwell with the bad news. But it could end up as a chapter in her next book.