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Body farm rejected but not dead and buried, yet

Texas State University runs into trouble as it tries to create a site to study decomposition. Data could aid murder investigations.

July 01, 2007|Howard Witt | Chicago Tribune

HOUSTON — There are a lot of necessary but unpleasant things -- landfills, chemical plants and halfway houses being just a few -- that can cause concerned homeowners to rush to the local zoning board to declare, "Not in my backyard!"

But some folks in the small central Texas city of San Marcos recently dodged perhaps the ultimate NIMBY nightmare: a forensic research facility made up of dozens of dead human bodies left out in the open to rot.

Otherwise known as "body farms," such facilities allow forensic anthropologists, medical examiners and police detectives to closely study the mechanics of decomposition on bodies that have been left out in the sun or buried in shallow graves or stuffed in the trunks of cars. That, in turn, allows authorities to more accurately pinpoint the time and circumstances of a death, which is often essential information in homicide investigations.

Forensics experts say there are only two such body farms in operation in the country, one at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville and the other at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, N.C. Researchers at Texas State University would like to open another one in their hometown of San Marcos, to better understand the decomposition effects of the unique Texas climate.

"What is highly variable is the timing of these stages of decomposition, depending on a whole host of factors in the environment," said professor Jerry Melbye, the forensic anthropologist who is leading the effort to establish the body farm. "So the University of Tennessee material is mainly of value to Tennessee and surrounding states there. We have our own unique bugs and plants and animals, and this interaction is very complex."

At first, the university proposed locating the body farm on a plot of largely rural land about two miles from the San Marcos outlet mall, one of the biggest economic attractions in the city of about 46,000.

That went over about as well as a pair of defective Manolo Blahniks.

City officials were concerned that visiting bargain hunters might discover a little more than they bargained for. Nearby residents worried about bugs being attracted to the body farm and coyotes gnawing on body parts and dropping them in their backyards.

The university quickly backed down.

Then, in April, university officials proposed another, even more isolated, site, on ranchland next to the San Marcos Municipal Airport. There were just a few farms and ranch houses nearby.

This time, the pilots balked.

"There was concern about pilots looking down seeing the bodies," said Kenny Johns, manager of the airport, which caters mostly to corporate jets. "Odor was another concern. We were told it doesn't travel farther than 50 feet. But that didn't really put anybody at ease. It can always be carried by the winds."

By far the biggest concern, however, was vultures, which are familiar scavengers in many parts of the state. Airport officials worried that vultures drawn to feast on the bodies could get sucked into the engines of jets taking off or landing, posing the danger of a crash.

Melbye said he could have addressed the concerns about pilots seeing the bodies with high wooden fences and screens, and he could have kept predatory animals away by keeping the bodies inside chain-link enclosures.

But the professor conceded he couldn't have done much to keep the vultures from circling overhead.

"I would have felt just terrible if there had been any accident with a vulture," he said. "It was a legitimate concern."

So now Texas State officials are on the hunt again, looking for a suitable site for their body farm. They know it's a delicate quest.

"I have said many times that I'm fully sympathetic to people who do not want to live next to a body farm," Melbye said. "I wouldn't want to live next to a body farm either. So we're looking for the right place to locate it. It's out there. I'm sure of it."

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