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USF anthropologist unearths the past, one identity at a time

Erin Kimmerle is well-known for solving cold cases and identifying the unidentified. But she needs the public’s help to do it.
Erin Kimmerle is an associate professor at the University of South Florida and a nationally-known forensic anthropologist. She is also the director of the Florida Institute of Forensic Anthropology and Applied Science, working to solve cold cases and identify unidentified remains.
Erin Kimmerle is an associate professor at the University of South Florida and a nationally-known forensic anthropologist. She is also the director of the Florida Institute of Forensic Anthropology and Applied Science, working to solve cold cases and identify unidentified remains. [ TORIE DOLL | University of South Florida ]
Published Apr. 23|Updated Apr. 25

Erin Kimmerle is an associate professor at the University of South Florida and a nationally-known forensic anthropologist. She is also the director of the Florida Institute of Forensic Anthropology and Applied Science, working to solve cold cases and identify unidentified remains.

In 2014 she found unmarked graves of juvenile inmates who died at Dozier School for Boys, a notorious former reform school in Marianna where boys were brutally beaten. She recently released the results of a 2-year study verifying the existence of unmarked cemeteries in Hillsborough County.

Related: Ground Truth: In Dozier's neglected cemetery, a search for lost boys and the reasons why they died

In 2017 she led the effort to establish an outdoor human decomposition lab — also known as a body farm — in Pasco County. But instead of building a state-of-the-art facility with USF, the County Commission voted in 2019 to end the partnership, which will happen this year.

And in 2019 she was featured in a National Geographic documentary to determine if remains found on a remote Pacific island were those of aviator Amelia Earhart, who famously disappeared in 1937 in an attempted flight around the world.

“It wasn’t her,” Kimmerle said. “The mystery continues.”

She talked with the Tampa Bay Times about her work.

• • •

The Pasco County Commission voted to end the body farm agreement. What’s next for the idea?

We’re running it. It’s the only one in Florida. … So we are looking for a place in Hillsborough County, hopefully closer to the university, which would make it more convenient (for students who) go out there every day. … It’s been running for three years now and it’s been very successful. We do a lot of training out there for students but also for law enforcement development.

• • •

What can you learn from the body farm?

There’s so much that this program offers, from the rates of decomposition and knowing how long a person has been deceased. … We also work on just understanding the natural processes that happen and making sure that that is not confused with trauma or injuries that caused the death. And that’s been really a crucial aspect of it. ... Because these individuals have donated their bodies to the university for forensic science, once the outdoor component is done the skeletal remains are cleaned and put into a collection at USF.

These are known individuals, so we know everything about their age and how they (died), and that becomes a really valuable tool to help develop new methods for identification, because we know the answer. … Students and researchers come and continue to do research on skeletal remains.

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I have a student, for example, doing her dissertation on looking at cancer and how that affects bone. … Over 20 of our donors died of cancer. And so it’s a type of collection and a type of resource for medical and forensic education that just doesn’t exist without these types of donation programs.

• • •

How many deceased people have you had out there?

We’ve had over 100 donors. … People sign up during their life to donate, so we have over 300. We call them pre-donors.

• • •

You continue to work with law enforcement agencies to identify found remains?

We assist law enforcement and medical examiners. We work with them throughout the country. Most of the work we do is in central Florida and also Pennsylvania… that is related to a cold case project that we started in about 2010 trying to help identify unknown homicide victims (in Philadelphia.) Cold cases are challenging enough, but if you don’t know who the victims are, those cases fall to the bottom of the line.

We’ve done everything from exhumations to finding the cemeteries where they’re buried, because a lot of Jane and John Does were buried in city cemeteries, which were subsequently unmarked and forgotten and lost. We’ve tried to locate them, exhume them, do DNA testing, do facial reconstructions and a lot of public engagement, because in those cases we really need families of the missing to come forward. We’ve had a lot of success solving cases this way. It’s a long process. When you think about how many there are, the scope of the problem, it can just be overwhelming.

• • •

How do you reach the public about your work?

A couple of years ago we did an event at the Tampa Bay History Center. It was open to the public where we had done the whole process, and it ends with a facial reconstruction (some using clay sculptures.) A family came in and thought they recognized their sister right away. And it was really important because their missing person file had never been properly entered. There was no reference DNA from the family on file, so we were able to obtain that. And it turned out that we were able to get an identification of their sister.

• • •

How many unidentified remains have your teams discovered?

Hillsborough county, for example, has about 50 unidentified people. Florida has 1,000. Nationwide there’s over 40,000, so we need people to come forward.

• • •

How do you reconstruct what a person may have looked like using their bone structure?

It starts with really examining the skull first… and we put together everything we can about the unknown person or the victim from the biological sense of who you are, so your age, male or female, ancestry. If there’s ever been healed fractures. Lot of people during their lives broke their nose or had other injuries to the face that healed but that will change the soft tissue and the shape of your face.

So we really try to rely on that anatomy and the biology ...if they had glasses, or what their hair looked like, their clothing. If any of that’s available from the crime scene report or death investigation report then we include that so it’s as unique to the person as possible. And then, we basically draw a face over the skull (digitally.)We create a face and then the key, of course, is getting that out to the public. It doesn’t do a lot of good if it goes back in a drawer.

Correction: Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan disappeared in 1937 while attempting to fly around the world. An earlier version was incorrect on this point.

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