Forensic research center will be key part of college’s expanding mission

I once read a book about dead bodies, with the clever title “Stiff.” I’m not sure what that says about my reading habits, but that’s not the point.

In it, there’s a chapter about the Forensic Anthropological Research Center (that’s the preferred name for a body farm) in Tennessee.

A body farm is a relatively simple operation. It’s nothing more than a piece of ground where dead bodies are placed in various situations (some are buried in shallow graves, other might be put in the trunk of a car, others might simply be left lying in the sun) so researchers can see what happens to a human body as it makes its way back to dust.

What happens is not pretty. I won’t go into detail here. Suffice to say that Mary Roach’s writing style in “Stiff” leaves little to the imagination.

With that in mind, I asked Mesa State College President Tim Foster and professor of criminal justice Michael Bozeman to tell me why the community should support the college’s plans for a fifth U.S. body farm here in Mesa County.

They’re a persuasive duo, Boze- man in particular. He’s a 20-year homicide detective from Houston who will settle for nothing less than making Mesa State known as the best school in the country if you want to study criminal justice.

The body farm, as far as he’s concerned, is not only desirable, it’s critical to the mission of the criminal justice program. And, he’s quick to add, it will be a boon to a lot of other programs at the college. The criminal justice students can use it to practice evidence gathering and investigative techniques, of course. But that’s not all. Art students can use it (the bodies eventually become skeletal and a good skull is a wonderful teaching aide for a class in, say, sculpture) as can biology, chemistry, entomology and botany students, to name a few.

What’s more, the Mesa State facility will provide information not currently available. All the other body farms are in high humidity, high rainfall areas of the country. Nobody else is doing any research on decomposition in semi-arid climates such as Mesa County.

Ask Bozeman if there’s a downside and he’ll quickly say no. “Once you move past the ick factor you recognize that a facility like this … is a positive impact on a community. It should bring a sense of community pride,” he told me.

That’s a sentiment not shared by at least a few residents near the area on the east end of Riverside Parkway that will be home to Mesa State’s Forensic Anthropological Research Center. They worry about their property values, odor, ground contamination and just the notion of having dead bodies lying around.

Nobody knows what will happen to property values. But Bozeman and his colleagues make a persuasive case that odor will not be a problem, nor will ground contamination or disease.

If, in the unlikely event they are wrong, Foster said the operation will be shut down.

Foster is sympathetic to the concerns of neighbors and readily admits the college could have done a better job of letting the neighborhood know what’s going on, a strategic error the college is working to correct. But that part of town is already home to a youth correctional facility and a toxic waste incinerator, and some kind of National Guard facility is in the works.

There’s little doubt the facility will be a useful research component to Mesa State’s ever-expanding mission.

Foster knows the body farm, initially at least, will dip into the college’s account of good will in the community. But that account should have a healthy balance. The $150 million or so worth of construction at the college the past few years has helped this community get through an unpleasant recession.

The college is perhaps the largest component in the cultural life of Grand Junction, not to mention the community activities brought by the college’s athletic department and the facilities at the college that are open to the public.

Who knows? Maybe Bozeman’s right. Maybe in 10 years we’ll all be bragging that this area is home to the best peaches in the world, the world’s largest flat-top mountain, Colorado National Monument, Art on the Corner and the Mesa State College Forensic Anthropological Research Center.

Denny Herzog is the retired executive editor of The Daily Sentinel. E-mail him at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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