A student excavates a shallow grave at the Body Farm in Knoxville, Tennessee. Photo courtesy of FBI.gov
Ever wonder how the FBI trains its agents to collect forensic evidence, preserve outdoor crime scenes, and recover human remains? The know-how required for these sensitive jobs cannot be fully grasped or understood just by reading a textbook, so the students need to be hands-on and experience it for themselves. Those priceless lessons come from the Forensic Anthropology Center at the Anthropology Research Facility in Knoxville, Tennessee — a 2.5 acre woodland area commonly known as “The Body Farm.”
The facility was founded in 1981 by anthropologist William Bass to study human decomposition and insect activity. Nearly two decades later, after participating in large-scale body recovery operations in Kosovo and other places overseas, the FBI recognized a weakness in their expertise.
Since 1999, the Bureau has consulted the training classroom that hosts their annual Recovery of Human Remains course each year. Agents from the FBI’s Evidence Response Team Unit (ERTU) learn from forensic anthropologists who teach them the slow and methodical process of detecting “clandestine burials” and excavating challenging crime scenes.
Dressed in hazmat suits, rubber boots, and protective gloves, the students spend five days in the field where they use notepads to sketch crime scenes, consult forensic entomologists (what you might just call a “bug expert”) to recognize how maggots decompose a body, and learn the technical aspects to the clues left behind at archeological digs and sophisticated sites. The students survey a potential crime scene, comb through every pebble and clump of dirt, and document each bullet, bone, or piece of clothing found in the layers of the graves. Identifying what may be a hint or signal to the human puzzle that ultimately helps recreate the story of what may have happened to the victim is a difficult, but imperative task in an investigation.
These observation techniques require the students to question every part of the landscape because it’s critical in ensuring that no evidence is missed. Dawnie Wolfe Steadman, the director of the Body Farm, suggests a scenario: “A cigarette butt at an outdoor crime scene — is that evidence or is it garbage?”
The controlled environment gives the students the realism they will see when they are doing it for real, including the sights and smells of real human corpses.
“I definitely don’t think anyone could just walk in here and deal with the smell and also the sight of a human being decomposing,” said Medora Arnaud, a field photographer from the Houston field office. “But you know you have a job to do. And I’m sure a lot of times that’s what gets a lot of people through it.”
The human remains that are donated, including a collection of 1,700 individuals, are permanent guests at the facility to aid in scientific and forensic research.
“We have over 4,000 people from around the world who have donated their body to us while they are living,” said Steadman. “They feel strongly about the science that we do and they want to be a part of it. And I think one of the things that the donors feel very strongly about is that they are benefiting law enforcement, and particularly the FBI directly, by their gift of body donation.”
Once completing the course, ERTU members return to their field offices with a new and improved expertise. This knowledge makes them an asset when deployed on the ground at complex crime scenes including mass shootings, cold case homicides, and stateside terrorist attacks — like Ground Zero on 9/11 or the finish line of the Boston Marathon Bombing in 2013. The ERTU and forensic experts also deploy overseas to assist other governments and authorities in evidence collection after catastrophic world events including war crime killing fields, Al-Shabab bombings across Africa, and in the Middle East where explosive analysis needs to be performed.
Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.
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