Forensic study area a possibility on college land
It’s not what lives on this farm that matters. It’s what the farm says about death.
A body farm, the nickname for a forensic anthropology center, is a stretch of land where forensic and criminal experts place corpses donated to science in homicide scenarios and study how the bodies decompose. Mesa State College is in line to operate the fifth forensic anthropology center in the United States, possibly as early as this spring.
Michael Bozeman, an assistant criminal justice professor at Mesa State, is spearheading the effort to build a body farm just outside of the city in an undisclosed location. Just under an acre of land has been fenced for the project, and the college has designated room to expand the site to five acres. Mesa State is waiting to hear back about donation forms and legal paperwork before proceeding with the idea.
It wouldn’t be the first site of its kind, but Bozeman said the Grand Junction farm would provide a whole new insight for forensics specialists. The first body farm in the United States was built 38 years ago at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. Other farms followed in Texas at Sam Houston State University and Texas State University. Another exists at Western Carolina University.
While the other farms experience hot, humid weather, western Colorado can teach experts more about the way a body decomposes in a higher altitude and drier climate.
“Heat and humidity, particularly humidity, causes more rapid decomposition because of moisture,” Bozeman said.
Humidity also attracts different types of bugs to a climate and to a body. Bozeman foresees entomology students studying the bugs in the body lab, while criminal forensic specialists can observe which bugs appear and how quickly they cause a body to deteriorate. Nursing students could benefit from the project by using skeletons for class after they’re no longer needed at the farm.
The main beneficiaries of the program, however, would be students and experts. Colorado Bureau of Investigation employees and investigators and forensic experts from across the country could study the farm’s progress alongside Mesa State forensics and criminal justice students.
Bozeman said students of Mesa State and the Peace Officer Standards and Training Academy could have classes or internships that would allow them to spend time at the body farm. The internships would mean 132 to 180 hours working with the site in a semester.
Amanda Borman, a Mesa State student who plans to graduate with a psychology major and a criminal justice minor in May, said she hopes to volunteer at the site this semester. Borman said it would be an honor to be part of a project that’s one-of-a-kind in the western United States.
Aside from getting to work alongside law enforcement professionals from across the state and learn from their tips and experiences, Borman said the farm will help make classroom lessons more realistic.
“We’re going to have an experience other graduates won’t have had. We’ll already know what we’re getting into,” Borman said.
Bozeman said Mesa State graduates who work with the body farm will be more marketable to prospective employees, a definite asset in today’s job market, he said.
Once they’ve provided immunization records to the college, students will get to place and study bodies as soon as human donations arrive.
The college can arrange to pick up a body from a morgue or funeral home if the person decided before death to donate his or her body to science, or family members can sign the body over to the body farm on behalf of the deceased. Sometimes body farms receive corpses from a state or county because the person’s remains were not claimed.
Once a body comes to the site, it will be placed in or on the ground “or in a container where someone may want to conceal a body,” such as inside a bag or the trunk of a car, Bozeman said. Anyone wanting to donate items, from old cars and rugs to tarps and 55-gallon drums, can contact the college.
The specific gases emitted from bodies will be noted, molecules will be measured, and decomposition trends monitored. The resulting information and more can be applied to learning more about homicide victims found in similar scenarios in a similar climate.
Students have been reminded to always remember who they’re working with and refer to the bodies as donations or people rather than corpses.
After the donated bodies have decomposed to the bone, students can study the bones for disease and search for previous injuries. The bones will remain in a permanent collection.
“I hope the citizens of Grand Junction understand it may be a controversial topic and a bit squeamish for some, but it should help put Mesa State on the map,” Bozeman said.