by SEAN KIMMONS
More than a dozen dead bodies are scattered on a 26-acre site outside of San Marcos. They lie under the sun or are buried in makeshift graves, but police aren’t investigating – nor will they.
Instead, graduate students from Texas State University are studying the corpses to learn how they decompose. The outdoor laboratory is not filled with the aroma of death, unless a person crosses paths with a body in its early decaying stages, according to at least one researcher.
“It depends how long the body has been out there,” said Daniel Wescott, the director of the school’s forensic anthropology center, which oversees the laboratory. “After a couple of days it gets pretty potent, but it eventually goes away.”
The study of dead bodies may be a stomach-churning field for the budding forensic anthropologists, but at least they hear no complaints from their subjects.
The researchers say their work will enhance methods used in pinpointing time of death, helping law enforcement solve murder cases, among other benefits.
The forensic anthropology research facility at Freeman Ranch, nicknamed the “Body Farm,” is the largest of its kind in the world, claims Wescott.
In 2008, the laboratory opened and drew lots of attention. There, students photograph the bodies and track the rate of decomposition.
Studying human decomposition in the Texas climate is perhaps the body farm’s main purpose. In hot and dry conditions, the body begins a mummification process, slowing down the rate of decay as chemical changes are reduced, Wescott says.
“We study how rainfall, heat, wind and other climate factors affect human decomposition,” he said.
Other researchers study insect activity as well as marks left by vultures and other scavengers during the different stages of decomposition.
There are 14 bodies currently at the site, most of them on the surface and others buried a few feet underground.
When the body is finished at the outdoor lab, it is processed into a skeleton to be studied again. Boxes of skeletons are stored at the forensic center in San Marcos, where current and future researchers will analyze the bones.
“We retain the skeleton in perpetuity,” Wescott says. “We’re known for decomposition studies, but in reality these skeletons will probably be used for hundreds of years.”
Thus far, at least 37 bodies have been donated to the center, and another 90 living people have signed on to donate their bodies after they die.
Besides furthering science, it’s a cheaper alternative to burial. If the body is located within a 200-mile radius, the center takes care of all expenses, Wescott says.
“People are really interested in donating,” Wescott says of those who offer their bodies to science. “They’re excited about being part of the study.”
Identifying the unknown
In the same room as the donated bodies, nameless human remains sit in similar brown boxes. Local law enforcement bring bones, either recently discovered or from cold cases, into the center. Researchers study the bones to create a biological profile, which includes age, sex, stature, ancestry, trauma and an estimated time of death.
“It’s at the heart of what forensic anthropology is,” said Caryn Tegtmeyer, a student researcher. “The biological profile helps police narrow down their investigation.”
At times, a DNA sample is collected and sent to the University of North Texas Forensics Lab to aid in the identification process. More often than not, identity is found through dentition and X-ray comparisons, since DNA can be fragmented and the method is costly and time consuming, researchers say.
“Ultimately it provides identity,” Michelle Hamilton, a professor at the center, says of the process. “It gives that person their identity back.”
In late March, Tegtmeyer and other students were called out to Comal County to recover the remains of a 33-year-old Dripping Springs man. The body had been there for a few years, it was assumed, and his bones were scattered by animals.
“A girl playing near her yard came across the mandible in a dry creek bed,” she said. “One of his arms and fingers had been dragged quite a ways from his body.”
Tegtmeyer and others did a line search and found a majority of the bones, on which they conducted a biological profile. Their research led law enforcement to determine the man’s identity and that he had died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, she said.
“It’s not as easy as it looks on TV,” Tegtmeyer said of the process. “It’s not something you can do overnight.”
Being part of active investigations, students receive real-world, hands-on training, Hamilton says.
“You feel an additional responsibility,” she said. “You’re not just writing a report for report’s sake. It’s for family and law enforcement.”
The most important thing to remember, says Director Wescott, is that the unknown remains were once living people.
“If we can identify them we can help bring closure, or bring new life to a murder case,” Wescott says. “It’s kind of hard to prosecute somebody without a body. But it could be very well that one of these is the missing body.”
To sign up as a living donor and help further research, go to the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State (FACTS) website here. There, you can download a living donor packet, which you fill out and return to the center in order to be added to the list of willful donors.