USF Students Study Mock Crime Scenes

USF forensic anthropology students work with law enforcement agents in a training exercise to study mock crime scenes.


Video: Danielle Barta | USF News


By Daylina Miller

USF News


TAMPA, Fla. (Jan. 05, 2011) – While most students are hitting the textbooks for exams, Erin Kimmerle’s classes are out in the field, collecting and analyzing forensic evidence like bone fragments, decomposing pig bodies, tattered clothing and more.


For the past four years, USF anthropology students have participated in an annual field trip to work with local law enforcement and the FBI to comb mock crime scenes for forensic and anthropological evidence.


Kimmerle, who teaches several forensic and anthropology courses at USF, set up the field day with FBI Special Agent Charlotte Braziel to mimic an experience students at The University of Tennessee’s famous Body Farm might have.


“I wanted to find a way to give the forensic anthropology class a more realistic, hands-on field day,” Kimmerle said. “I contacted Charlotte about the possibility of doing something together so that students could learn more from the law enforcement perspective.”


Instead of bright white, shiny plastic skeletons, students encounter decomposing pig bodies and real bones that are camouflaged by dirt and debris on the ground. Kimmerle said this prepares the students better for real crime scenes.


The students this past fall semester were split into groups and given a packet with a fictional crime story and a general area at Blackwater Hammond Park in Tampa to investigate.


“Students are always in the labs learning bones, learning how to do identification and trauma analysis in those other classes but this is the one where they actually get out in the field to do it,” Kimmerle said.


What most students and faculty don’t know, Kimmerle said, is that the 500-square-foot Ecological Research Area for USF off Fletcher Avenue has been used to study decomposition in Florida since 2007. Pig bodies, which decompose in a manner similar to human bodies, are laid out in various ways in which a human body might be disposed of in the woods.


“There are different elevations, different soil types and different vegetation types in the research park that represent different areas of Central Florida in just that one eco-park,” Kimmerle said. “It’s a great outdoor laboratory.”


There has been a lot of research on human decomposition, which can determine time of death and provide other forensic evidence to solve a case, but decomposition can vary depending on clothing, water intrusion, burial depth and climate. The research done at Tennessee’s Body Farm wouldn’t necessarily apply to a decomposing body in Florida outside.


Smaller “body farms” like the USF ecopark, help Kimmerle and law enforcement learn things about decomposition specific to Central Florida that they can not only teach students in mock crime scenes, but apply to real-world cases.


This field day is an important experience for students to have before they enter the real world, Brazier said.


“We are trying to duplicate exactly as if we were out on a live crime scene so this is as realistic as you can get except for being out on the crime scene,” Braziel said. “Most of us have had much experience out on crimes scenes so we have created these based on our knowledge.”


Kimmerle said that not only does the project give students the opportunities to apply what they’ve learned in the classroom out in the field, but it establishes connections between students and law enforcement for future jobs and promotes teamwork.


“They build a great rapport and relationship with all the agents here and they build skills and work as a team,” Kimmerle said. “There’s no way you can process a crime scene or do an investigation if you’re not a team player and you don’t have to go into forensics need those types of skills.”


Daylina Miller can be reached at 813-500-8754.