DADE CITY — Pasco County commissioners voted Tuesday to end a partnership with the University of South Florida to run a body farm and training facility on county land, pushing the university's renowned forensic anthropology arm out of an idea its leader spearheaded.
The letter to end the agreement was tucked into the commission's consent agenda, a bundle of items that commissioners vote on as a block. The vote was unanimous.
This marks a baffling twist in the project, lauded as a unique law enforcement-academia partnership between the Pasco County Sheriff's Office and the Florida Institute of Forensic Anthropology and Applied Sciences at USF. Plans for the state-of-the-art facility in Land O' Lakes included Florida's first outdoor human decomposition lab, also known as a body farm, and an indoor research and education complex.
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What happened to the partnership depends on who you ask.
Forensic anthropologist Erin Kimmerle, director of the USF institute, said she and her team were waiting to hear back from Pasco County regarding changes to the original agreement. Instead, she and the university learned Friday from a Tampa Bay Times reporter about the letter to terminate the partnership.
Kimmerle initially approached Pasco County with the idea a few years ago after a similar proposal in Hillsborough County fell through. Since the body farm opened in October 2017, it has drawn more than 24 researchers from four institutions, she said, and programming scheduled over the next year will "bring high visibility, visiting scholars, students, and professionals in law enforcement" from around the country.
"I'm very disappointed by this vote ... We're keeping all options open, looking for the best location and arrangement that we can find for the future," said Kimmerle, who is known for her work unearthing the remains of boys imprisoned at the defunct reform school Dozier School for Boys.
In a statement, Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco said Kimmerle's institute was using only about half the land the county had allotted it. The Sheriff's Office wanted to take the unused land and use it for other building and research opportunities, but Kimmerle "was not interested in partnering with other entities for use of that land," Nocco said.
"We welcome the University of South Florida as a partner," the sheriff said, "but it is not possible to have an exclusive agreement on several acres of land with no intentions of utilizing the land in the near future."
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Sheriff's spokesman Kevin Doll added that the agency, county and USF's general counsel and government relations offices all agreed that ending the partnership was the right step forward.
USF spokesman Adam Freeman said that was not accurate. Rather, Freeman said, during the negotiations the university came to believe that Pasco officials did not wish to work out a new agreement.
The original agreement between the Sheriff's Office and USF allows for either party to end the partnership "without cause" upon 36 months prior written notice. That means USF has until May 2022 to give up the land.
According to Nocco and Doll, other schools have signed on to help with the facility's research, including the University of Florida and Florida Gulf Coast University. The site will also include a second body farm "due to the overwhelming demand we have received from our higher education partners," Doll said. The USF site will be open to other academic institutions when its agreement ends.
Heather Walsh-Haney, a forensic anthropologist from Florida Gulf Coast, has agreed to lead the research effort, the sheriff said.
In an email to the Times, Walsh-Haney said she agreed to participate but that her role "continues to develop." She added that she didn't know Pasco was planning to terminate the agreement with USF until a colleague called her late Monday.
"I was not asked my opinion on the matter," she said. "I did not provide any input on that decision. I did not seek this outcome."
At Tuesday's county meeting, several researchers and scientists pleaded with commissioners to reconsider.
"My research will be greatly affected, but it’s more than just me," said graduate student Chris Turner, who added that he thought the facility should remain in control of a local university.
"The program is still in infancy, but it appears to be doing very well," said Melissa Pope, an investigator with the Hillsborough County Medical Examiner's Office, attributing that success to Kimmerle's leadership.
"Ultimately this program is her intellectual property," Pope said.
In response, Pasco sheriff's assistant executive director Chase Daniels said the situation was "very simply a land use issue" and that they're open to partnering with USF again under a different agreement.
"We’re not excluding anyone," Commissioner Kathryn Starkey said. "We just want everyone to work together."
Times staff writer C.T. Bowen contributed to this report. Contact Kathryn Varn at [email protected] or (727) 893-8913. Follow @kathrynvarn.
TAMPA BAY TIMES INVESTIGATION: Dozier School for Boys
2009 Pulitzer Prize Finalist: For Their Own Good.