Planting a body farm
A proposal from two Chico State profs would create a new site for forensics study
A silver bag conceals the body of an elderly woman found in her apartment in Northern California. She had been dead for about two months.
An autopsy cannot be performed because so little flesh remains. Thanks to a newspaper found in her apartment, the approximate date of death can be determined. The cause: unknown.
But her bones may reveal the answer.
This story has the elements of a mystery on CSI or Bones, but this case will not appear on TV. Instead, this real corpse has come into view in the Physical Anthropology Human Identification Laboratory (PAHIL) at Chico State, where a team of forensic anthropologists can study the bones.
Forensic anthropologist and professor Eric Bartelink zipped open the body bag while two students—wearing white disposable gloves, arm coverings and aprons—stood ready to assist Bartelink in his surgical examination.
The corpse was mostly skeletal with a few mummified limbs, remains of soft tissue and a small knot of hair tangled around a scrunchie at the top of the skull. The woman appeared to have been about 5-foot-3. Frozen brown beetles and maggots covered the body, from which a stench emanated.
The team peeled and plucked her bones apart, then placed them in a stainless-steel sink to be scrubbed and washed.
The bones eventually will end up in an aquarium housing dermestid beetles, which eat dead flesh with needle-point precision. Once the bones are clean, they will be reassembled. The whole process can take weeks.
“It’s like putting a jigsaw puzzle together,” Bartelink said.
Then, through closely analyzing every bone, the forensic anthropologists might be able to tell if the woman was murdered. If she died of natural causes or poisoning, however, her bones might not be as revealing.
Professor of anthropology Turhon Murad founded PAHIL in the mid-'70s. The lab’s faculty, staff and students serve 38 out of 58 counties in California, as well as Nevada and occasionally Oregon and Washington. The facility usually receives between 20 and 30 cases annually, but has already received about 30 this year.
Murad and Bartelink are writing a proposal to add to Chico State’s forensics program by constructing a facility, known as a “body farm,” where human decomposition can be studied.
The facility would include an office, processing lab, wireless technology, small lecture room, privacy fencing and security, Bartelink said. It would cost between $1 million and $2 million to build and around $20,000 annually to maintain, not including staff salaries.
The facility would rest on a minimum of five acres, but 20 would be ideal, Bartelink said. Plenty of space is needed so that the areas of study can be rotated as to not create a contaminated environment that does not reflect conditions elsewhere.
Chico State forensics students have worked to recover and identify bodies in the aftermath of Sept. 11, the Thailand tsunami, Hurricane Katrina and the genocide in Bosnia, Murad said. With increased facilities, more academics and students will be drawn to Chico. The university already has two professors certified by the American Board of Forensic Anthropologists, an elite group with fewer than 100 diplomates. Murad is one of them.
Bartelink, an assistant professor, came to Chico State two years ago after he finished his Ph.D. at Texas A&M. His expertise is physical anthropology, but he has an interest in human skeletal biology. He views this body farm as an excellent opportunity for the school.
“This could put Chico State on the map by making it an even stronger program than it already is,” Bartelink said. “It will definitely attract interest, funding for research and recognition.”
PAHIL is often presented with scenarios that the specialists cannot answer in the lab, or anywhere else in California.
“Shows like CSI oversimplify the science and go overboard in what can be determined regarding the time since death,” Bartelink said.
For example, methods used to determine the time of death, or postmortem interval, are relatively accurate if the person died recently. But, when a body has been decaying for multiple weeks the corpse might have little flesh remaining, making it hard to use insects, humidity or temperature to determine when the person died, Bartelink said.
The time of death can be crucial to identifying the corpse or later in prosecuting a suspected murderer.
In some cases, bones may be tested for radiocarbon dating, which shows if the person was alive before or after the U.S. began testing the atomic bomb, Bartelink said. Radiocarbon dating is also used to tell if bones are prehistoric.
Still, there is a large grey area in determining the postmortem interval, meaning there’s still plenty of research to be done. Given Chico State has a nationally accredited physical anthropology program, it’s an ideal location for a body farm, Bartelink said.
The official name for the facility would be California Forensic Outdoor Research and Training, or Cal FORT, and it would be only the fourth body farm in the country. The University of Tennessee in Knoxville, Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, N.C., and Texas State University in San Marcos all have body farms.
Body decomposition rates from these universities can’t be used in California, however, because of the vastly different environment, temperature, soil components and bugs.
Melanie Beasely, who is studying for her master’s in anthropology, chose to attend Chico State because of the nationally accredited physical anthropology program. She said she supports the proposal because it would bring Chico State to the “forefront of any decomposition research as far as the Western states.”
Of the 15 graduate students in the physical anthropology program, Bartelink has not met one who’s not interested in the proposed body farm.
Bartelink sent out a letter request for support of the program to people who might benefit from it, such as the police and forensic pathologists. Bartelink, Murad and even staff at UC Davis received more than 20 letters of support from forensic scientists and law enforcement agencies, Bartelink said. Some of these letters came from researchers in Germany, Australia and England, who say they will visit Cal FORT or come to see the skeletal collection that will accumulate.
When a dead body is found in Chico, often police Sgt. Rob Merrifield or his team are on the scene, trying to figure out what happened.
Merrifield is responsible for not only identifying the body, but also for determining the time of death, whether the body has been moved, whether foul play was involved, and any other details that might be crucial to piecing the story together.
When Merrifield and the police team can’t complete the puzzle, they often turn to the forensic anthropologists at Chico State.
“It’s so nice to be able to call these experts locally,” Merrifield said. “If we had a [body farm] here, I’m sure there would be more experts available to us.”
The fact that Chico State’s physical anthropology program has three professors working in the forensics field is noteworthy in itself. Beyond working with local police, they have helped the FBI, appeared in Discovery Health Channel documentaries and traveled as far as Iraq and Bosnia for their work.
Top-notch faculty members are a boon to the university—and beyond. A body farm would take Chico State’s physical anthropology program, and its contribution to the community, to the next level. It would provide a place where the Chico police could re-enact crime scenes or learn new forensics techniques such as fingerprint restoration.
Currently police officers travel to Sacramento to study body decomposition with pigs, but there’s a big difference between a decaying pig and a decaying human, Merrifield said. The only human corpse training police officers get is on the job.
“It would be nice if officers could have that training in a non-circumstance situation so you know when you go out in the field,” Merrifield said. “You could then have a basis to make an estimate. It would take a lot of the guess work out of it.”
Evidence technicians would also be able to learn a lot from the insects and soil around the bodies. For example, they’d be able to tell if a body had been moved depending on the different bugs or soil composition.
Others at the Chico Police Department, including Chief Bruce Hagerty, agree that a body farm in Chico would be a huge resource to the police departments in the area.
“From a police training standpoint, it would be phenomenal,” Hagerty said.
It takes a while for officers to develop an expertise on how to handle a corpse, he said.
“It would be invaluable to have a situation where we could run experiments with cadavers,” Hagerty said. “Then we would be better equipped to deal with crimes.”
Hagerty is quick to recognize that the idea of a body farm might repulse some people or challenge personal beliefs but says you have to “weigh the public good against those opinions that don’t appreciate having such a farm.”
With all the good that a body farm would bring, it doesn’t come without challenges and concerns.
First off, where will these bodies come from? Only bodies donated specifically for this type of use will be utilized, Murad said. Even after the bodies have decomposed, the bones would continue to be studied and build the skeletal bank at Chico State, he said. In this way, the dead continue to help the living.
Perhaps the biggest missing piece in the puzzle is where the body farm would physically fit. Murad said an ideal location would have plenty of space, be in or near Chico, have varying environments and access to electricity and water. The space would be mostly open land, where bodies could be buried or left exposed, along with other possible scenarios. Bodies left exposed would be enclosed with raptor-proof cages to prevent animals from interrupting experiments, he said.
Then there’s the natural reaction known as NIMBY—not in my back yard.
UC Davis studied body decomposition in an open-air environment for a short time. The facility was located on a piece of land operated by the wildlife and ecology department, but was shut down when people in a hot-air balloon flew over the site and mistook it for a crime scene. After that, the university was worried about negative press and shut the whole thing down.
Scott McNall, Chico State’s former provost who now oversees the university’s environmental sustainability efforts, said he would support a body farm if a safe site could be identified, funded and approved.
President Paul Zingg has his own caveats. “It’s not impossible,” he said, “but a lot of things have to be considered.” The logistical concerns articulated by Murad underscore “the real issue about what a body farm per-se would need,” Zingg explained.
“It’s not just a case of digging a hole somewhere and leaving a body for someone to find and study,” he continued. “There are lots of issues—social, academic, psychological—as well as a basic debate about whether such an approach is even necessary.” By that, he means “whether an actual body farm or what can be simulated through sophisticated software programs” is most beneficial in a learning environment.
Physical study is the preference of Chico State’s intrepid duo, which is why Murad and Bartelink continue their quest for body-farmland.
Murad has suggested situating the facility on the university farm or university preserves. Both scenarios have gotten a big “no” from campus leaders. “The people who run the university farm are not too happy about the impacts a body farm would have on their teaching and learning,” Zingg said—and as for the preserves, some of the lands have been donated with specific preferences for their use, and “the university has no intention of acquiring additional preserve land for a body farm.”
If the facility is not allowed on current university property, a donation of land or money to buy property is needed, Murad said. The FBI has expressed interest in being a beneficiary, but funds are still being sought, he said.
Bartelink is confident that financial backing will be a small issue due to the overwhelming support in the research community—"The facility would be pretty self-serving due to grants to build and maintain it.”
On top of the site and cost comes the matter of domain.
If the appropriate land is allocated as university property, for instance, then it becomes state property, said Chico Assistant Planner Rob Peters. Once land is state property, then the local government loses jurisdiction on the site. Cal FORT would then not need city approval, only state approval.
If it becomes a private facility in Chico, not owned by the university, then the facility would likely be created in zoning falling between lab and research and cemetery and crematory, Peters said.
Mayor Andy Holcombe said he felt the county would be better location than Chico. He likened it to a scenario where a hog farm, a business and a residence all end up being neighbors. Plus, if it’s near a neighborhood, residents might object because they’re worried about the smell, they think it’s sacrilegious or disrespectful, or just don’t care for the idea of living alongside dead bodies, he said.
If Cal FORT found land in Butte County, it would need to get a special dispensation before proceeding. Dan Breedon, the county’s principal planning supervisor, said an area would have to be rezoned because current regulations would not allow for such a facility.
But even if leaders aren’t excited about having a body farm in their particular spheres of influence, they appreciate the concept. Holcombe said Cal FORT, in an appropriate area, would benefit Chico. It would be good, clean development, increase law enforcement training and enhance Chico State academically. Zingg noted that “there’s a need for first-rate forensic scientists and practitioners. Some of that has been spurred by television and the entertainment media,” which means the field carries with it a certain cachet.
In any case, forensic scientists won’t be dropping off bodies in the immediate future. Murad and Bartelink still need to work with the university administration and the Willed Body Program through the University of California to obtain approvals. They must prove to administrators that funding is secure, the location is appropriate and properly zoned and the facility can be built and maintained.
“It will be a long process even after we obtain funding,” Bartelink said, “so we will have ample time to deal with all ethical and legal issues before we actually begin research using human cadavers.”
CN&R intern Laura Hauser and CN&R Editor Evan Tuchinsky contributed to this story.