TAMPA — Though plans to deposit the dearly departed in the earth around Lithia are dead, cadaver researchers continue to push to find a new site where scientists can study the business of human decomposition in Florida’s subtropical climate and maybe solve more homicides and close more missing persons files.
University of South Florida anthropologists, who are behind the plans for the research facility, said that in the days after the initial location was scrapped, they received a few offers of land for the body farm, as such facilities are commonly called.
“We are committed to doing it,” said Eric Eisenberg, dean of the USF College of Arts and Sciences. By no means is the project done. It’s just pushed back a bit. We are not on a time line. We are committed to doing this work. The sooner we get this going, the more it will benefit the county and state and other places, too.”
Already a handful of people have contacted the university, he said, some offering private land on which to place the facility. Private tracts as well a public and corporate lands are being looked at as potential sites, he said.
USF was surprised by the number of people who turned out to object to the facility, initially planned for the Hillsborough County sheriff’s training center in Lithia.
“It was interesting to me, though, that the resistance was not really about what we’re doing,” Eisenberg said. “They didn’t challenge the science or the need for it. Most of the resistance was the feeling like this was the last straw, that this was a part of the county that gets things dumped on them.”
Besides the law enforcement training center where the body farm would have been located, there is a landfill and a massive reservoir nearby.
People felt they should have been consulted sooner, Eisenberg said, and that may be the lesson learned.
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USF’s Facility for Outdoor Experimental Research and Training (FORT) was planned for two acres owned by Hillsborough County and used by the sheriff’s office as a training facility and shooting range. It is in a remote part of the county, with only a handful of homes located nearby and none within a half-mile.
The sheriff knew about the plans, and so did some state law enforcement officials. Local politicians apparently were in the dark, though, and learned about it from a newspaper story that ran a week before a public meeting was to be held to answer questions about the project.
Opposition to the plan exploded when homeowners from as far away as 10 miles said the stench from bodies lying on the ground and in shallow graves would find its way to their back yards and that their home values would plummet because no one would buy property or build a home next to a body farm.
USF did a quick turn-around and scrapped plans for the site, but not for the program. Officials says such research is sorely needed in Florida to help law enforcement investigators and forensic specialists learn details of decomposition specific to this state. That, they say, could help detectives solve crimes here.
Body farms in Tennessee, North Carolina, Colorado and Texas can’t answer questions about decomposition in Florida, and so far, there is no such facility here that can study what happens to human bodies when left alone in the Florida climate.
“Because climatic conditions and insect species vary around the country, it is important to have research facilities in a variety of ecological niches,” said Dawnie Steadman, director of the Forensic Anthropology Center and professor of anthropology at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, which established the first such facility more than 30 years ago. “The research conducted in Tennessee is specific to a temperate environment and may not be easily applicable to forensic cases in deserts, very cold environments, arid environments or the more hot and humid environments of Florida.
Steadman’s facility provided “the first complete understanding of human decomposition; previous information had been applied to humans from animal studies.”
Important data collected at the University of Tennesse includes “chemical changes in the body and the soil, changes in microbes in human tissues as well as in the soil, isotopes in the soil, factors affecting insect behavior and many more,” she said. “One recent study has changed our understanding of where DNA should be sampled in the skeleton for identification purposes, changing our long-term focus on sampling large heavy bones, such as the femur, to the more delicate bones of the body.
“A mass grave project is allowing us to understand which remote sensing techniques are useful to detect mass graves over time,” she said. “This study will provide human rights investigators with a guideline of technological usage to locate mass graves.”
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The USF project has some heavy hitters backing it.
“Throughout the nation, similar programs are strengthening the criminal justice system,” said Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, in a letter to USF in April 2014. “Similar programs in other states have been highly significant and increased the usefulness of methods used which help lead to case solvability and accurate courtroom testimony.
“However,” she said, “no such program has ever existed in Florida.”
The USF proposal, which had been in the works for over a year, had called for five to 10 non-embalmed bodies at a time from USF’s After Life Body Donation Program be buried or placed on two acres of the 230-acre Walter C. Heinrich Practical Training Center.
A day after the public meeting, USF announced it was abandoning the Lithia site.
“USF listens to its communities,” the university news release said. “The residents of Lithia made themselves clear. As a result of the community meeting, USF has decided not to pursue the FORT program in Lithia.”
Daniel Wescott has been director of the Texas State University Forensic Anthropology Center in San Marcos, Texas, since 2011. He came to Tampa to try to convince people of the importance of such a facility. Launching a project like this, he said, is complicated.
“It is often difficult to know who needs to be involved and which steps need to come first,” he said. “One thing that USF might have done is to provide public talks on the role of forensic anthropology and the need for decomposition facilities prior to any announcement of a location.
“This would have given them time to inform the community and address any concerns before they became a larger issue,” he said. “USF has started the most important part of the project, which is to listen to the concerns of everyone impacted and seriously address each of them. Many of the concerns are based on misconceptions about the environmental and biological impacts.
Wescott said similar facilities have become important parts of their communities over time. “However,’’ he said, “the community must feel that they are informed and negative concerns must be addressed in a positive manner.”
He said research derived from body farms is important.
“There is a significant need for a facility of this nature in Florida,” he said, and the proposed site would have been perfect. “However, there may be other more ideal locations. At Texas State University there were several locations considered before it was decided to place the facility (at its current site).
He said the eventual site for his facility was based on a balance of the concerns of the community, convenience for the researchers and security.
“I am certain that USF will make a decision on the location of the new facility based on similar considerations,” he said. “I also have no doubts that the facility will be successful and contribute significantly to the advancement of scientific knowledge and the education and training of law enforcement.”