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Listening to the Bones

Texas State opens the world's largest forensic anthropology research facility

By R.U. Steinberg, Fri., April 4, 2008

Jerry Melbye and a colleague were part of a Texas State team that researched the famed mummies of Guanajuato, Mexico, last summer.
Jerry Melbye and a colleague were part of a Texas State team that researched the famed mummies of Guanajuato, Mexico, last summer.
Photo by Michael Wright

How many Texas vultures does it take to turn a dead pig into a skeleton? "About as many as can be crowded around," says Michelle Ham­il­ton. "It could happen in 24 hours or less. This is the kind of information we need to get in the hands of law enforcement and other anthropologists, to say things are different in different areas."

When human remains are found under suspicious circumstances, forensic anthropologists like professor Jerry Melbye and assistant professor Hamilton help determine how victims met their deaths. Over the years, these forensic anthropologists at Texas State University-San Marcos have helped law-enforcement officers across North America solve dozens of cases. By examining bones and other forensic evidence, they unearth clues into how a person has lived and how he or she died. Committed to following the evidence, they have helped set free innocent persons, and they've helped imprison the guilty. They give the dead a final chance to be heard.

On Feb. 12, Texas State announced it will open a forensic anthropology research facility – more commonly known as a "body farm" – on 7 acres of the 3,500-acre Freeman Ranch, off Ranch Road 12, west of San Marcos, where it will become only the third such facility in the United States and the largest in the world. As an open-air laboratory, it will help Melbye, Hamilton, and their graduate students learn crucial information about the decomposition of human bodies. The facility will also be a boon to nationwide law-enforcement agencies, whose personnel currently have a three-year wait to be trained at a smaller facility at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville.


The Southwestern Landscape

"What [our facility] is going to do is allow us to open up a whole new kind of window into the postmortem interval," said Hamilton. "The existing facilities in Knoxville and Western Carolina University are both located in the southeastern United States, and what we know right now about the postmortem interval is based on that climate and geography. Let's say we find a skeleton here. According to the Tennessee model, maybe that person has been dead a year and a half. Texas is very, very different. Our facility is going to be relevant for Texas, Oklahoma, Arizona, and climates like ours." Texas State expects the facility will be up and running by late spring or early summer, and the plan is to have up to five to six bodies under study at any given time.

Hamilton said 5 acres will have different simulated ecosystems and burial circumstances, and 2 additional, separately fenced acres will be used to hold training workshops for law enforcement. "We will build a pond, have some open land, and plant some trees." She said the possible decomposition scenarios are infinite, "but there are some that are more common than others. We can work on the more common ones such as experiments on bodies that are found in cars, for example." With an eye toward possible project donors, she added, "We're trying to get a donation of a car and a van or search-and-rescue vehicle."

According to Melbye, several people have already indicated they're willing to donate their bodies to the project. "People have been very generous. We've gotten a number of inquiries, and we're very grateful for them wanting to donate their bodies to science and for future education. Not only do we use their bodies to answer questions about decomposition, but afterwards we will clean off the bones, and they will become part of our study collection for future generations of students." (Melbye noted that the facility cannot accept bodies with communicable diseases or those of children or veterans.)


Finding a Home

In the wake of the current wave of fictional forensic TV shows like Bones, the various forms of CSI, and the even more numerous versions of Law & Order, many people might think that forensic scientists already have all the decomposition data needed to analyze crime scenes and find perpetrators on file. But screenwriter fantasies and ordinary forensic realities are never quite the same. Using the cadavers of 60-pound pigs, grad student Nicole Reeves has already made a discovery that radically revises previous presumptions about how long it takes for a body to turn into a skeleton.

Forensic anthropologist Michelle Hamilton
Forensic anthropologist Michelle Hamilton
Photo by Jana Birchum

"We know animals are attracted to dead bodies," says Hamilton. "For most animals, we know what they do, what kind of damage that they inflict on people's bodies. We know how they eat in the decomposition process. But very little is known about vultures. ... Nicole set up a project where she put some pigs out – we use pigs as stand-in models for humans. With motion-sensing photography, she was able to capture the damage vultures do to pigs. She found that vultures were able to skeletonize 60-pound pigs in three hours of feeding."

So how many Texas vultures does it take to turn a dead pig into a skeleton? "Nicole took a picture of the sky," said Hamilton, "and was able to isolate 92 vultures in the area. You look at a skeleton and think it has been there for six months or a year, but you could be totally wrong. It could happen in 24 hours or less."

Would most medical examiners recognize beak marks on bones? "No, and neither can we, but we can help," said Hamilton. "For example, vultures would leave feathers, scratch marks, and poop spots. Sometimes you find bodies with splatters of bird poop. You think, 'What the heck is that?' Then you realize it was a vulture or group of vultures. Peck marks on the bones from vultures can be mistaken for cut marks. Law enforcement might look at the bones and think the marks were caused by a knife."

As ubiquitous as they are in the Texas landscape, it was in fact the vultures that almost blocked the establishment of the Texas State facility in the first place. The proposed research facility was hardly embraced by local residents and county officials, who raised a resounding chorus, "Not in our back yard!"

Texas State first raised the idea in November 2006, proposing to use an old horticultural center, but its location near existing developments drew protests. Another location, off Highway 21 near the San Marcos Municipal Airport, was nixed by the Federal Aviation Administration because of fears that vultures would interfere with aviation. University officials finally selected the Freeman Ranch, including considerable buffers of land away from research locations, and scaled back the proposed number of corpses at any given time from nine to five or six. The nearest property will be more than a mile away (any odors shouldn't extend beyond 50 feet from the facility itself).


Building a Program

Melbye said the facility will be not only the largest but the safest of its kind. "We'll have very tight security, health, and safety rules," he said. "We're going way beyond what anyone has done before, as far as this research facility is concerned."

"Without the support of the provost, Dr. Perry Moore, and the president, Dr. Denise Trauth, [Texas State] wouldn't have this facility," said Vicky Melbye, Jerry's wife, who will be coordinating workshops for law enforcement. "They really have been behind us from day one," Hamilton agreed. "I've never seen such support. It's difficult to open a facility like this. People try almost every year to get facilities opened and running. But you can't do it without the support of your institution, and most institutions are not willing to back you up."

Law-enforcement agencies have also been supportive. Texas Ranger Capt. H.D. Henderson said that the facility will be of tremendous importance for his agency. "The Texas Rangers currently train two to four Rangers per year in a 10-week Advanced Crime Scene course sponsored by the University of Tennessee's National Forensic Academy," he said. "Having this level of forensic training within Texas means it's more readily available and more specific to actual conditions and climate in Texas. This will provide invaluable information and assistance in homicide investigations involving the recovery of buried bodies and research related to the specific stages of decomposition found in various crime scenes. With the opening of the forensic research facility at Texas State University, training and continued research costs should be more affordable and more easily attained than having to send investigators out of state for this training."

Melbye and Hamilton are pleased because the facility will not only help train law enforcement, but it will also encourage and educate a new generation of forensic anthropologists. "Right now, we're going through a spreadsheet of 40 qualified students, and we are only going to accept nine," said Melbye. "There were more, but these are the most appropriate. They come from places as far away as the University of Illinois, University of Pittsburgh, Central Florida, Ohio State, and even the University of Tennessee-Knoxville."


Bones Tell a Story

When Melbye was a student, he said, the term "forensic anthropology" hadn't yet been coined. Originally from Fargo, N.D., Melbye had a long career in anthropology and osteology in Canada. "After many years at the Univer­sity of Toronto, I took my retirement, and Vicky and I moved to the Coachella Valley in Califor­nia. After a year, I got a little restless; this job became open [in the Department of Anthro­pol­ogy], and Texas State accepted me. When I arrived here, I was the only forensic anthropologist on staff. I missed teaching. It was supposed to be a temporary, one-year job."

Melbye examines the mummied remains of a fetus in Guanajuato, Mexico.
Melbye examines the mummied remains of a fetus in Guanajuato, Mexico.
Photo by Michael Wright

Having studied ancient populations for many years, he had turned to forensic anthropology in the 1980s because of his interest in helping to solve crimes. "I had to adapt because there was no training," he said. "So I had to go through a period of learning and understanding, working on cases. Then I incorporated my experiences into my teaching. That's why I still take cases today, as does Dr. Hamilton, because we can use them in our classroom experiences."

Both scientists remember their first murder investigations as though they happened yesterday. "My first case involved a 9-year-old girl, Christine Jessop," said Melbye, recalling a notorious 1984 Ontario, Canada, crime. "She had been missing for a couple of months. There had been an autopsy, and she was buried. It looked like it was clearly a rape and a homicide. And that was the end of the situation until a young man was arrested."

Melbye said the defense had been to the place where Jessop's remains were found and discovered more bones, making the site look like it could be some sort of burial ground for a serial killer. "The defense said their client was not responsible for the other bones, so we had to go back and check it out. We also had to go back to the grave, get a warrant to open her coffin. It was very hard – I had an 8-year-old daughter at the time. There were other questions that had to be answered."

The defense discovered another pair of shoes at the scene, and they appeared to be the wrong size for Jessop. "I measured my daughter's foot to demonstrate. I looked at the bones and found a lot more trauma there that the pathologist had missed. She had been beaten, and the murderer made a terrible mess in cutting off her head.

"In the process, I discovered that I had a talent I could use to help solve crimes. I had looked in ancient populations, and they had murder, mutilations, cannibalism, and all kinds of things. Now I could apply this knowledge to something practical, something people appreciated. I decided then I would keep working at this. The Christine Jessop case was tragic in many different ways. This young man was convicted but later found to be innocent." In fact, the case of Christine Jessop and the wrongful conviction of her neighbor, Guy Paul Morin (who was eventually exonerated by DNA evidence), led the province of Ontario to conduct an unprecedented top-to-bottom examination of its criminal justice system.

Hamilton's first case had the opposite sort of outcome. "My first case was similar to Jerry's," she said. "It had been another little girl who had been kidnapped from her back yard. She had disappeared and was missing for a number of months. Some hunters had been off in the woods and ran across a skull."

Hamilton said law enforcement called for assistance, and she went to the crime scene. "We spent a lot of time picking through leaves and recovered this little child's skeleton. The story given by the perpetrator was that he had accidentally run over her with his vehicle [and that] he got scared, took her, and tossed her in the woods. But we were able to show that not one of the bones had a fracture indicative of a motor vehicle accident with a pedestrian. ... There was no trauma on that skeleton. That lack of trauma told a story."

The forensic facility is expected to foster teamwork between scientists and law enforcement never before possible in Texas. "The one common theme in the TV shows is there is a hero," said Melbye. "I guess it's part of our cultural milieu that we have to have a hero. Our hero generally does everything, whether it's hair and fibers, ballistics, blood, DNA, etc. Whereas in the real world, we have a lot of specialists who are talking to each other and working together – it's a team approach. We have to be aware of what other people are doing as far as their specialties are concerned, but we have to put all these specialties together. That's the fun part, I guess. That's the big difference as far as Hollywood versus reality."

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