CMU body farm back on track with new director

Photo by Christopher Tomlinson—Melissa Connor, director of the Forensic Investigation Research Station for Colorado Mesa University, stands at the site southeast of Grand Junction. Once construction of a building is complete, likely by spring semester, Connor will teach forensic anthropology classes in one room and oversee student research involving body remains in another.

Melissa Connor’s neighbors were never at a loss for conversation topics at dinner parties.

They could always bring up the latest news on Connor’s on-going class project, burying pigs on her five-acre property outside Lincoln, Neb., city limits. Connor’s students in the master’s of forensic science program at Nebraska Wesleyan University dreamed up different scenarios for burying the deceased pigs, then studied how the bodies decomposed. Mock crime scene-like scenarios ranged from baby pigs burned in cars to multiple pigs buried inside or outside bags deep enough to protect them from coyotes — and Connor’s dog.

“I probably had 10 graves by the time I left,” Connor said. “The neighbors on either side just thought it was a hoot.”

Depending on their senses of humor, Connor’s new neighbors in Grand Junction may be relieved to learn she plans to do all of her forensic research as Colorado Mesa University’s new director of the Forensic Investigation Research Station away from home at the station. The station, colloquially referred to as the “body farm,” will eventually have human remains placed in various states of burial based on potential crime scene scenarios. Students will research how the bodies decompose and are affected by western Colorado’s high-desert climate. Colorado Mesa will be the fifth university with a “body farm” in the United States and the first one outside the lower-lying, humid South.

“I think were going to get a lot of drying. The sun at this elevation will probably accelerate (the decay process),” Connor said, adding the area will probably provide unique information about insect involvement in decay as well.

Connor said she expects the results of research at the site to inform students in their future careers as coroner’s deputies, police officers, archeologists and other positions. She also hopes information gleaned from the site can be useful for law enforcement death investigations.

A time-line has yet to be set for when bodies will be moved to and placed at the site. Connor plans to start with pigs, then move on to human remains. She wants to have proper protocols and ethics standards in place before beginning a human donor program or bringing donor bodies to the station.

“We’ll wait as long as it takes to get it right,” she said. “We want to do it right the first time out the gate. There’s just so much wrong with it not (going right).”

For now, the station is surrounded by a fence and contains the bare bones of a 2,000-square-foot building. Once construction of the building is complete, likely in time for next semester, Connor will teach a new suite of forensic anthropology classes in one room and oversee student research involving body remains in another. Connor is designing those classes now and envisions they will lead to a forensic anthropology minor at CMU.

A major in the subject is unlikely, Connor said, because a bachelor’s alone in forensic anthropology would be a “dead end” in a career search. A minor to complement another degree, on the other hand, could strengthen a resume for a law enforcement applicant who wants to work up to an investigative position, a biology student looking to go into the biotechnology industry, or an archeology student who needs to know differences between excavation of an old versus a new burial site.

“We’ll give them their money’s worth and get them a job at the end of it,” Connor said.

Students have been asking Colorado Mesa Criminal Justice Professor John Reece when the “body farm” is coming since the idea was floated more than two years ago by then-Mesa State College criminal justice instructor Michael Bozeman. The project stalled after Bozeman left Mesa for a job at the University of Texas at Austin in the summer of 2010, right after the then-college’s Real Estate Foundation purchased a 35-acre parcel for the body farm southwest of the intersection of U.S. Highway 50 and 32 Road.

The project is moving again thanks to Connor’s arrival, and Reece is excited about the inter-disciplinary possibilities of the new amenity. Aside from offering students a chance to “broaden their knowledge base” with “practical, hands-on training,” Reece said he believes the station will help dispel the “CSI effect,” a false perception among people who watch crime scene investigation shows that investigations are quick and criminal justice graduates can go straight into investigative positions.

“There are incremental steps they need to take to move into those positions, but this will give them a great foundation to know and discern things. They’ll be good consumers of information and data and be able to make appropriate and critical decisions at various (crime) scenes and know their resources,” Reece said.

Reece said he also sees the potential for in-service and training possibilities at the station for local and nationwide law enforcement. Former Mesa County Coroner Rob Kurtzman, who served on an advisory board during creation of the forensic station, said simply having a resource like Connor in town will help law enforcement.

“She’ll potentially be a resource for the coroner’s office and law enforcement when it comes to recovering skeletal remains,” Kurtzman said.

Connor’s background includes recovery of both ancient, skeletal remains and newer, “fleshed” remains. She started her career as an archeologist working for the National Park Service. While serving as a field archeologist unearthing remains in 1993 at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in Montana, she was invited to work on a United Nations Truth Commission project searching for evidence of genocide in the former Yugoslavia. She excavated a mass grave site there and went on to excavate more mass graves there and in Rwanda and Iraq throughout the next 12 years.

She also helped identify, recover and return bodies to families following the 2010 Haiti earthquake and Hurricane Ike in Louisiana while working at Nebraska Wesleyan.

“You’re doing something that really matters and you see how much it matters to the families,” she said of her work abroad. “It’s important for court cases and it’s important for the families. And the body farm research will impact both of those.”

Connor said she wanted to move here for the adventure of running the country’s fifth body farm and because her husband had worked in Montrose 20 years ago and liked the area. She said the station has the potential to be a “big deal,” but for now she’s concentrating on the near-term, which includes teaching an introduction to forensic science course on-campus and prepping the station site.

“We’re going to take it one step at a time and if you do that, it’s not quite as intimidating,” she said.


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