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That Pasco County body farm? It's going to be a lot more than corpses

This is the logo for Florida's Forensic Institute for Research, Security and Tactics
Published Sep. 12, 2018

LAND O' LAKES — Justin Ross used to patrol the streets of Pasco County. Rogerick Green used to patrol the defensive secondary for two NFL teams.

Now, they're partners patrolling together, but they're not looking for bad guys nor slot receivers. They seek out support from academia, corporations and anyone else who might want to join in a partnership with FIRST, an acronym for Florida's Forensic Institute for Research, Security and Tactics.

The institute's planned centerpiece in Land O' Lakes has been well publicized. It is the Thomas Varnadoe Forensic Center for Education and Research to be built near the county detention center. That effort is a partnership between the Pasco Sheriff's Office and the Florida Institute of Forensic Anthropology and Applied Sciences at the University of South Florida.

The so-called outdoor body farm already is operating. It's where donated cadavers are exposed to the elements so scientists, medical examiners, crime scene detectives and others can study the remains as they decay. The indoor research and education complex received more than $4 million in construction money in the current state budget.

A ground-breaking ceremony signaling the start of the center's construction on Central Boulevard is scheduled for Sept. 19. There will be eight shovels and an empty field. It is symbolic of one of the challenges facing Ross, a Pasco sheriff's captain, and Green, a civilian employee in the agency who is the institute's manager. Last week, they didn't have a rendering to display. The business plan also is under construction, so hard dollar amounts for operating costs and income are not yet determined.

What they do have is the agency's ambition to build the institute into something beyond a forensics center and field.

"It's growing every single day,'' said Chase Daniels, assistant executive director at the Sheriff's Office.

The institute's list of components now includes training and research on police canines, intelligence, cyber security, tactics and leadership development. It will use the new complex in Land O' Lakes, the firearms range in Shady Hills and a yet-to-be-built center at Safety Town.

The idea is to bring researchers and practitioners together with the goal of compiling empirical data to help guide law enforcement and public safety strategies.

"We don't just want to be another training center,'' said Ross.

Green, who played three seasons for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the Sam Wyche-era, talked about community engagement, partnerships and collaboration. Essentially, he has to develop the institute's business model, one that Sheriff Chris Nocco said he hopes will be self-supporting.

Toward that end, Green and Ross have been building the institute's identity. They have talked to Rotary and Kiwanis clubs, churches, Realtors, chambers of commerce and the West Pasco Bar. They have made pitches to companies and university researchers and an appearance last week before the Pasco County Commission. Commissioners couldn't hide their enthusiasm over the potential for future economic development and the out-of-area officers filling Pasco's hotels when they are in town for training.

"This is the only one in the state of Florida and the only one in a subtropical climate. When you have something of that caliber coming to Florida, everybody gets interested,'' Ross said about response from the academic community.

The mission isn't the only thing evolving. The physical plant is changing, too. The Varnadoe Forensic Center, conceived initially as a single, three-story building, will become a three-building complex totaling 35,000 square feet. The main forensic building includes classrooms, a morgue, cooler space, labs and offices for visiting forensic anthropologists.

Ross said they hope to have construction largely completed by the fourth quarter of 2019.

"This is larger than the Pasco Sheriff's Office. This is regional asset,'' said Ross. "Our vision is to hopefully see this go nationally and internationally.''

Green echoed the sentiment.

"We want to be a center of excellence for everybody,'' he said, "and hopefully to offer something impactful that will be benefit to us all.''

Reach C.T. Bowen at ctbowen@tampabay.com or (813) 435-7306. Follow @CTBowen2

RELATED: Body farm closer to reality.

RELATED: Pasco, USF seek forensics lab.

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