Dr. Cheryl Johnston was just 5 years old when she had her first brush with death.
Bodies began falling out of the sky and landing in her yard.
A midair collision between a twin-engine Cessna and a Boeing 727 near Asheville Regional Airport killed all 79 people aboard. Johnston recalls walking through the wreckage with her dad, limbs and viscera scattered around them.
She says she was more curious than disgusted. “I just knew all adults were really upset, and I didn’t know why,” recalls. “I was just like ‘Wow! This is interesting to me.’ And they were all like ‘Oh my god!’”
Now a forensic anthropologist at Western Carolina University, Johnston traces her career path to that early experience. She says she looked at the unidentifiable body parts and simply “wondered how you identified people and get them back to their families. And that’s what we do here.”
“Here” is the university’s body farm – a human decomposition lab where cadavers are left to rot in the open air, then studied.
The site, surrounded by a privacy fence rimmed with concertina wire, has processed about 45 bodies since 2007. Some 24 lie on the ground in various states of decay; the rest have been collected, their skeletons part of a permanent campus archive that students study for clues.
Officially known as the Forensic Osteology Research Station (FOReST), it’s one of six body farms in the U.S.; a seventh is under construction in Florida. Body farms serve as training grounds for students of forensic anthropology, an increasingly popular field in which skeletal remains are used to solve crimes. With a growing demand for DNA in the criminal courts and biological evidence at crime scenes – the so-called CSI effect – universities have looked to expand their forensic offerings.
But human decay is variable, dependent on rainfall, temperature and insect life. Those factors are determined by geography, which is why Florida needs its own facility.
That doesn’t mean everyone wants one. Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco calls it the “ick" factor. “There are those people, you’re right, they don’t feel comfortable being around some of the parts of anthropology and forensics that are going to be out here.”
Nocco helped lead the charge for the Pasco facility, which will include a tactical training center, a “shoot house” for active shooter drills, and K-9 training for search and rescue dogs. Eventually, it will house a new statewide database for the more than 16,000 unsolved homicides and murders in Florida.
Those additional features helped blunt the kind of community opposition that derailed plans for a body farm in 2015 in the Tampa suburb of Litha. Residents there cited concerns about odor, groundwater contamination and plummeting property values -- mostly unfounded fears, according to Dr. Erin Kimmerle, forensic anthropologist at the University of South Florida. “You really won’t know it’s here unless you know it’s here,” she says.
Kimmerle has done extensive research on human remains and skeletal trauma, excavating mass graves from Kosovo to Nigeria (including, once, while 6 months pregnant.) But she is best known for her work exhuming bodies of 55 children at Florida’s notorious Dozier reform school – the so called “White House Boys.”
As she explained in a recent TED talk, her interest in the dead is rooted in concern for victims’ families, and their search for the truth. “It was like this nightmare they couldn’t wake up from,” she says. “Not knowing what happened was worse than knowing the truth.”
The Pasco facility will touch on a range of disciplines – including helping sketch artists discern between postmortem bloat and obesity, or teaching students to exhume a skeleton without damaging it. The 5-acre site is large enough to allow researchers to stage cadavers in different settings. The nation’s first body farm, at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, has studied bodies in car trunks, trailers – even staged a “hanging” to study suicide.
Because the Pasco site is located next to the jail, the county has been able to use prison labor to build it. The remote location will also keep it out of the public eye, and olfactory crosshairs – although those who work at the Western Carolina decomp site say odor is an overblown fear.
Johnston, who confesses to being “smell blind” after so many years of working on the body farm, observes, “It’s like when you walk in a house where somebody’s cooking food and it’s like ‘Wow that smells really good,’ and then after 10 minutes you can’t smell it?” says Johnson. “It’s the same with decomp.”
Brianna Murray, a senior at Western Carolina, says most students grow immune to the smell, but that first week after a body is placed is the worst. “That’s when most of the stuff happens. You’ll see the bloating and the purging, which that is where you’ll get most of the smells.”
The school also accepts donated roadkill, Murray notes, and humans are nothing compared that.
“Bears smell way worse than the humans.”
The Tampa facility will be marketed nationally, Sheriff Nocco hopes it will eventually be a training hub for aspiring forensic researchers. “The more real world training the better,” he says, “so they know what they’re getting into.”
That need has never been clearer to him than during a quadruple homicide investigation in the summer of 2014. Adam Matos is accused of shooting and bludgeoning four victims to death, at a crime scene that began inside a bloodstained house, and ended with the bodies stacked in the sun for a week.
“For 48 hours, they’re in there – sweating, coming in, coming out -- because the scene is that horrific,” Nocco says. “That’s what forensics is in real life. Not what you see in hour-long show with commercials, and they’re driving around in 80-thousand dollar vehicles.”
Hollywood’s enthusiasm for crime and courtroom dramas has greatly increased interest in forensics. Kimmerle says over the past 12 years, her graduate program has grown from a tiny subspecialty to one where she turns away dozens of applicants each year. And while she doesn’t consider the TV version of forensics realistic, she concedes a certain kind of fiction is helpful. “To do this type of work you have to distance yourself, and not personalize it too much. Because if you get caught up in that human tragedy of every case it would be pretty overwhelming.”
That said, when running the body farm, Kimmerle says she will never forget the lives that made it possible. As it prepared to place remains in April, the facility already had four bodies in cold storage, and 60 pre-donors
“We really value each of these donations,” says Kimmerle. “ It’s a gift that the family is giving. We’re incredibly grateful to them and respectful of them.”
Nocco agrees. “If a family member donated their loved one’s body can help us solve a crime, we are going to treat those donations with the utmost respect, because that’s somebody’s loved one -- somebody’s husband, their wife, their child.”