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FBI Trains at Body Farm, Part 1

Bodies of Evidence
FBI Trains at Body Farm, Part 1


The bug expert gathered FBI agents around the table to introduce his maggots. He selected a mature one from a watery dish and held it up to his eyepiece, staring through its translucent carapace like a jeweler appraising a precious stone.

“All of these, if you look, have a gut in them,” said Dr. Ian Dadour, a forensic entomologist, explaining how pinpointing a maggot’s age can tell a lot about what it’s eating. “So this means they’re still feeding…they haven’t used all their food up.”

Welcome to Day Two of the FBI Recovery of Human Remains course, an annual week-long field study for 40 special agents and professionals who are Evidence Response Team members in field offices around the country. The popular course, held each May at the “Body Farm” at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, pairs teams of agents with leading forensic anthropologists to learn how to best identify and excavate human remains to preserve the many clues and pieces of evidence that decaying bodies may leave behind.

Day One is classroom instruction and lectures from experts in the field, including Dr. William M. Bass, who in 1981 created the Anthropological Research Facility, or Body Farm, on a wooded hillside behind the University of Tennessee Medical Center. There, some 70 bodies that were left to science are laid out in various states of repose—buried, exposed, entombed. Bass began the venture as a novel way to study human decomposition and insect activity, but it has evolved into an important teaching environment.

“The initial use of the facility as a training classroom began with the Bureau,” said Dr. Murray K. Marks, a forensic anthropologist and protégé of Dr. Bass who helps run the FBI course. In fact, it was in 1999 that the FBI, after participating in several large-scale body recovery operations overseas, linked up with the Body Farm to get expert instruction on human remains recovery.

Body Farm 2009: Students Excavate Site Under Guidance of Forensic Anthropologist Stanley Rhine

Students excavate a site under the watchful eyes of their team leader, forensic anthropologist
Stanley Rhine, professor emeritus at the University of New Mexico
. Photo Gallery

In addition to the maggot lesson on Day Two, agents learn the technical aspects of what is essentially an archeological dig—probing for loose soil, measuring datum points, and the painstaking work of removing soil by hand. On the morning of Day Three, the agents don protective Tyvek suits, rubber gloves, and boots and divide into teams. Their task over the next two days: find a buried body, excavate it, and see what clues emerge.

Body Farm 2009: Student Takes Photograph of Body Near Excavation

A student takes a photograph of a body near the site of one of the excavations. Photo Gallery

“We don’t go in with mechanical equipment or even shovels,” said Special Agent Gary Reinecke of the Evidence Response Team Unit at the FBI Laboratory in Quantico, Virginia. Reinecke’s experience digging up evidence of war crimes in Kosovo led, in part, to the human remains course. The work is slow and methodical to preserve potential evidence. “They’ll be on their hands and knees with hand trowels and other small tools, brushes, and eventually they’ll find the remains.”

Later in this series, we follow agents as they hone their forensic skills and unearth bodies of evidence in the storied environs of the Body Farm.

One agent offers a preview: “I definitely don’t think anyone could just walk in here and deal with the smell and also the sight of a human being decomposing,” said Medora Arnaud, a field photographer in our Houston field office. “But you know you have a job to do. And I’m sure a lot of times that’s what gets a lot of people through it.”

- FBI Trains at the Body Farm, part 2 | Gallery
- FBI Laboratory
- Evidence Response Team Unit