Thursday, April 19, 2018
Public safety

Pasco's 'body farm' in works

LAND O'LAKES — With funding from the state and private sector, a 5-acre patch of rural land near the Pasco County Detention Center could soon become a key piece of a hub for state-of-the-art forensic anthropology research and law enforcement training. Think a tiny Silicon Valley, but with decomposing bodies and terrorism training.

The Pasco County Sheriff's Office has teamed up with the Florida Institute of Forensic Anthropology and Applied Sciences at the University of South Florida to create a plan for an indoor-outdoor training facility that would be used to teach students and professionals in law enforcement and forensics how to prevent and prosecute violent crimes, investigate missing and endangered persons cases, and combat domestic terrorism.

The plan includes lab space and a classroom and would be used to teach forensics, anthropology, geochemistry, legal medicine, forensic intelligence, aviation reconstruction and cyber forensics. It calls for a morgue, training facility and evidence storage.

Called the Florida Forensic Institute for Research, Security and Tactical Training, the project would also include a human decomposition lab — also known as a "body farm" — which would make it the first in Florida and one of just seven in the world.

Donated cadavers would be positioned in an enclosed lot and exposed to the elements so scientists, medical examiners, crime scene detectives and students could study the remains as they decay and learn to excavate burials and process outdoor crime scenes.

The facility would also be available for training to agencies across the state and country, with easy access from Tampa International Airport. Officials think it would attract related industries to adjacent undeveloped land, turning the area into a kind of one-stop shop for training, research and business across criminal investigation disciplines.

"This is really going to be a forensics hub," Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco told reporters. "When you add in all of the law enforcement components of what we're going to be doing here, it's going to be unique for facing the challenges our country deals with, unfortunately, more and more."

The project has been in the works for more than a year, since a smaller plan to locate a "body farm" on county property in eastern Hillsborough was withdrawn after residents who lived near the proposed site protested.

Officials have seen no such protest in Pasco.

"Everybody's just really excited about it," said Erin Kimmerle, a forensic anthropologist and professor at USF who is leading the project.

The project also includes a partnership with Pasco-Hernando State College and has full backing from the county's board of commissioners.

The setback in Hillsborough, Kimmerle said, allowed planners to envision a larger project.

"It was an opportunity to think through what we have going on and where we want to be in 10 years," she said.

Kimmerle said much of the project is centered around trying to solve the state's roughly 16,000 unsolved homicides.

"Every year we have more cold cases. That's the challenge," she said. "We're trying to reduce the number of cases, but the more we dig, the more we find."

One component of the project would be a statewide cold case database, which would contain information on unsolved crimes from agencies across the state. Students could re-examine old unsolved cases, look for clues that might have been missed and then use new information and modern techniques to try to solve the cases. One of those new techniques is virtual autopsies, which use 3-D scanning to look inside bodies and document trauma.

Kimmerle said the solvability rate for homicides in Florida is around 64 percent, meaning more than a third of them go unsolved.

"Everything is centered around cold cases," she said.

Earlier this month, a $4.3 million bill that would fund the project was approved unanimously by the Florida House Justice Appropriations Subcommittee, which allows the appropriation to be considered for inclusion in the full budget.

Nocco said that he felt confident the funding will come through because of the positive attention the project has garnered. Meanwhile, workers have begun erecting fencing and preparing the site for improvements.

Times Pasco columnist C.T. Bowen contributed to this report. Contact Ben Montgomery at [email protected] or (727) 893-8650. Follow @gangrey.

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