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Death is the Life of Florida Body Farm Advocate

September 26, 2007

FORT MYERS, Fla. _ Heather Walsh-Haney bursts through the door and hurries past the long table where the skeleton of a man who was once a professor lies, past the rows of human skulls, the candles and the old leather-bound books until she stops and takes a breath.

“It smells a little like decomposition in here,” says Walsh-Haney, a forensic anthropologist who hopes to open Florida’s first body farm. “Sweet and musty, don’t you think?”

At 39, she already spends most of her days working among the dead, mining bones for what they reveal about life stories and crimes, mysteries and clues. Her ability to divine answers to the primal questions of “Who was this person?” and “When did he or she die?” has taken her from the broken ground of New York after Sept. 11 to New Orleans, where Hurricane Katrina pushed bodies from their rightful burial sites. And she travels throughout Florida, investigating whether the skulls found in cauldrons have been acquired legally for use in religious ceremonies.

Hers is a relentless and complicated postmortem business. Between helping police and medical examiners throughout the state _ and teaching at Florida Gulf Coast University _ Walsh-Haney works to advance the field of forensics.

Along with the university, she hopes to establish an outdoor research facility in which donated corpses are allowed to lie out on the open ground while forensic anthropologists and criminologists study the mechanics of decomposition.

“Every body has a different story to tell. Reading bones tells us something about how we live,” Walsh-Haney says. “We are all unique, and the life processes, the food that we eat, the environment that we’re in mark our bones in certain ways.”

There are only two body farms in the country, the more famous one run by the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, which over the years has held a fast, morbid grip on pop culture.

Its most fascinating details inspired crime novelist Patricia Cornwell’s “The Body Farm” in 1994. More recently, the television series “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” and “The Dead Zone” co-opted deliciously grim scenarios from the farm. The second body farm is at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, N.C.

Now, in the Lee County (Fla.) Medical Examiner’s Office, Walsh-Haney talks breathlessly about converting four or five acres of cow and sod pasture in Port Charlotte into the nation’s third body farm.

“In Florida, with everything being perfect _ the weather not being too hot, it’s not too shady, there are just enough insects, it’s not too rainy _ we can have a skeleton in one week,” says Walsh-Haney, who consulted on a “CSI: Miami” episode last year.

“… That kind of time frame makes it urgent that we study how the body decomposes. It would go a long way in our efforts to determine time of death.”

In March, Walsh-Haney was among the first investigators to arrive at a wooded Fort Myers lot thick with leaves, branches and the bones of eight men.

Given the task of determining who the men were and how they lived and died, she painstakingly retrieved almost 1,600 bones.

And within days of spending time with the bones, Walsh-Haney was before a bank of microphones, describing what she knew for sure: The eight men ranged from 18 to 49 years old. They were white, and one may have been Hispanic.

“There are trends that we can read in the skeleton that can tell us that a pelvis is male, and the cranium is male versus a female,” Walsh-Haney says. “We can also look at the nose structure, palate structure that can tell us ancestry and racial groups.”

For almost as long as she can remember, Walsh-Haney, who grew up mostly in a Chicago suburb, has been fascinated by how people live and die.

“When I was little, I was very afraid of death and dying but drawn to it at the same time,” she says. “I grew up in a household where we were always learning about people and things. It was filled with books of beautiful and faraway places. My grandmother was a docent at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. We didn’t have a lot of money, so the museum became our entertainment.”

Soon, anthropology seemed like such a romantic profession that by the time Walsh-Haney arrived at the University of Florida, “I kept imagining myself as a Margaret Mead, out there discovering the cultures of the indigenous people,” she says. “But this was not something easily done.”

She took classes under the late Bill Maples, the noted University of Florida forensic anthropologist who had helped identify the remains of “Elephant Man” Joseph Merrick and Czar Nicholas II and his family.

“I absolutely loved the process of working with bones,” Walsh-Haney says. “I realized that in helping to identify people, you were helping families. And I wanted to help. That’s when I knew this was for me.”

She was offered a job at Florida Gulf Coast University before she had even finished graduate school.

“Heather has a tremendous aptitude. She has what it takes to do forensic science,” says Anthony Falsetti, director of the University of Florida’s C.A. Pound Human Identification Laboratory, where Walsh-Haney studied.

Florida’s proposed body farm would be attached to a $100 million, 3,000-acre Homeland Security training complex scheduled to break ground early next year. The facility, called The Grove and set up like a university campus, is designed to train military personnel and emergency responders. It would include gun ranges, tunnels, a lake and caves, says director Stephen Alexander.

Alexander says The Grove will donate the land and help pay for the body farm’s structures and equipment. Walsh-Haney says she must raise about $40,000 to start the project.

“We’ll look for the types of insects that are there,” Walsh-Haney says. “We’ll look for how quickly grasses grow in and through the remains. We’ll even have forensic psychologists who can read the crime scene, and we will have staged scenes that mimic very famous serial killers.”

The body farm would be closely modeled after the University of Tennessee’s Forensic Anthropology Center, a three-acre lot across the Tennessee River from campus.

For more than three decades, scientists there have tediously pored over bodies stuffed in car trunks and coffins, submerged in ponds, dumped under concrete, exposed to bugs and buried in shallow graves.

“I think we can learn a great deal from a body farm facility here,” Falsetti says. “It would give us a chance to study the very issues that affect decomposition here.”

Over the years, body farm proposals submitted by universities have been largely unsuccessful. At leave five never made it beyond paper because of a lack of funding and neighbors upset at the prospect of corpses nearby. Plans for a third, a 17-acre facility at Texas State University in San Marcos, are under fire now because nearby residents fear odors and the unpleasant possibilities of circling vultures and lurking coyotes.

“Heather has been campaigning since I became the dean,” says Kenneth Millar, dean of Florida Gulf Coast’s College of Professional Studies. “If we get the body farm, it will certainly raise the profile of the university.”

Walsh-Haney’s Human Anatomy class starts at 8 a.m. By 9:45, she is lecturing 17 students on cranium mandible fractures and zygomatic arches.

They take in the lesson, then head to the back of the room, where a long table displays skulls and fangs of horses, cows, rats, beavers, turtles and humans _ and the occasional cadaver. Walsh-Haney patiently answers every question about death and dying, bones and fractures, then heads to her office.

On the walls: a poster advertising Deadman’s Reach Raven Brew gourmet coffee, a collection of Guatemalan pottery, and a photo of a skull wearing earrings and lipstick. On the shelves: a figurine of “The X Files” FBI agent Dana Scully, cellphone in hand, standing near a body on a stretcher. Books, too: “The Gun and Its Development,”"Corpse” and “The Mummy.”

Walsh-Haney giggles.

“People give me this stuff,” she says. “They see me and associate me with death. It’s weird.”

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(c) 2007, The Miami Herald.

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PHOTO (from MCT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): BODYFARM

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