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Western Carolina U. Plans ‘Body Farm’

July 29, 2006

CULLOWHEE, N.C. (AP) _ The 6.5-horsepower wood chipper sitting in the middle of John Williams’ forensic anthropology lab run is no macabre joke. Yes, a wood chipper did figure in the bloody climax of the 1996 film ``Fargo.″ And yes, the professor at Western Carolina University has run human bones through this particular Briggs & Stratton model.

But Williams, of course, isn’t trying to dispose of any dead bodies. Rather, he’s a student of how the human body decomposes.

He needed the chipper for a study on what the machine does to bone, a study commissioned by attorneys suing a Georgia crematorium owner charged with dumping _ and chipping _ human remains he had been given for incineration.

Soon, Williams will have a new place to conduct his research _ a well-hidden location near Western Carolina’s campus where he and students studying the science of the human skeleton and human remains can watch cadavers decompose in the mountainous environment of western North Carolina.

It will be just the second such ``body farm″ in the country _ the first was found in 1980 at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.

``They’ll be involved with the daily observation process. Very early on, you are examining that body daily, because the changes initially go very quickly,″ Williams said. ``They’ll learn how to observe as scientists.″

How fast a body left in the open breaks down _ key to establishing when a person was killed _ depends heavily on temperature, moisture and other environmental factors, Williams said. In relatively dry, cold conditions, like those found in these mountains in the winter, it can take months for a body to decompose to skeletal remains.

In the warmer, more humid conditions of summertime, when there are plenty of insects around, that process can speed up greatly, said Williams, a veteran of body recovery operations at the World Trade Center after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the 1999 EgyptAir crash off the Massachusetts coast.

School officials are keeping the facility’s exact location a secret, to discourage those with a morbid curiosity from dropping by. Roughly the size of a garage with room for six bodies, it will be hidden from view by a 9-foot privacy fence and protected by a second security fence topped with razor wire. Campus plans daily patrols at the site, which is a half-mile from the nearest home.

Rick Schwein, head of the FBI office in Asheville, said his office handles four to six body recoveries each year on federal lands, including the Blue Ridge Parkway, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians reservation and numerous national forests.

``We do have a fair number of body recoveries,″ Schwein said, ``because of the remote and rural environment and the amount of publicly accessible remote land.″

Most recently, he said, a murder victim from Cleveland County, in the central part of the state, was found dumped near the parkway. In a 2001 case, the body of a Wisconsin man was discovered by hunters in a forest about seven miles from the Western Carolina campus. The man’s son, a former student at Western Carolina, was eventually convicted of killing his father in the summer of 1998.

``Any education program that can be utilized as a resource by local, state and federal law enforcement agencies has got to be a good thing,″ Schwein said.

Already, Williams has fielded dozens of calls from law enforcement officials excited about the research site, including a trainer who teaches search dogs for nearby Macon County and has put in a plug for training cadaver-finding bloodhounds at the site.

The planned Western Carolina facility is 120 miles southeast of the only other such research site in the country, at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. Professor William M. Bass III founded his ``Anthropology Research Facility″ in 1980 and saw it become a sensation after it was featured as ``the body farm″ in a Patricia Cornwell novel.

Bass went on to co-author a 2003 book, ``Death’s Acre: Inside the Legendary Forensic Lab ‘The Body Farm,’ Where the Dead Do Tell Tales.″

Western Carolina Chancellor John Bardo, who hired Williams from the University of North Dakota in 2003, has been supportive of Williams’ effort to build a Top 10 forensic anthropology program at the school.

Among the ways Williams hopes to set his facility apart from Tennessee’s is by coming up with a moniker other than ``body farm,″ which he finds both inaccurate and too flippant.

``I’d rather have something more dignified,″ he said.

That’s in keeping with Williams’ requirement that students working in his lab always refer to remains by the first name of the person from whom they came.

As an example, Williams holds up a leg bone from a man named Walter, a diabetic who had one leg amputated at the knee. The femur is from Walter’s other leg, which he broke and doctors had to repair with the metal plate.

``We use their real names to remind people that these are real people,″ Williams said.

But Williams does have a sense of humor about his profession. The screen saver on the lab’s computer scrolls a famous line from the film ``The Sixth Sense″ _ ``I see dead people″ _ while decorations include a bumper sticker that reads ``I Sucked Bones at Fat Buddies,″ a local restaurant.

More than anything, Williams said, the new Western Carolina facility will help students learn whether they literally have the stomach for a field that many choose based on having watched the popular ``CSI″ television shows.

``‘CSI’ paints this picture of this sterile, perfect world, where there are no, for example, smells, and even the sights TV flattens out,″ Williams said. ``One of the first thing I want our students to be exposed to is the real thing, so that they don’t spend a portion of their life learning this and then go on their first case and ... realize, ’I can’t handle this.‴


On the Net:

Western Carolina Anthropology and Sociology Department: http://www.wcu.edu/as/anthro_soc/

University of Tennessee Forensic Anthropology Center: http://web.utk.edu/anthrop/FACresources.html

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