Texas town buries plans for body farm

University seeks site where it can study decomposing remains in local conditions

June 17, 2007|By Howard Witt | Howard Witt,Chicago Tribune

HOUSTON, Texas -- There are a lot of necessary but unpleasant things - landfills, chemical plants and halfway houses being just a few - that can cause concerned homeowners to rush to the local zoning board to declare "Not in my back yard!"

But some folks in the small city of San Marcos, Texas, recently dodged the ultimate NIMBY nightmare: a forensic research facility made up of dozens of dead human bodies left out in the open to rot.

Otherwise known as "body farms," such facilities enable forensic anthropologists, medical examiners and police detectives to closely study the mechanics of decomposition on bodies that have been left out in the sun or buried in shallow graves or stuffed in the trunks of cars. That, in turn, enables authorities to more accurately pinpoint the time and circumstances of a death, which is often essential information in homicide investigations.

Forensics experts say there are only two such body farms in operation in the country, one at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville and the other at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, N.C.

Researchers at Texas State University would like to open another one in San Marcos, to better understand decomposition effects that are unique to the Texas climate.

"What is highly variable is the timing of these stages of decomposition, depending on a whole host of factors in the environment," said professor Jerry Melbye, the forensic anthropologist who is leading the effort to establish the body farm. "So the University of Tennessee material is mainly of value to Tennessee and surrounding states there. We have our own unique bugs and plants and animals, and this interaction is very complex."

At first, the university proposed locating the body farm on a plot of largely rural land about two miles from the San Marcos Outlet Mall, one of the biggest economic attractions in the city of 46,000.

City officials were concerned that visiting bargain hunters might discover a little more than they bargained for. Nearby residents worried about bugs being attracted to the body farm and coyotes gnawing on body parts and dropping them in their yards.

The university quickly backed down.

Then, in April, university officials proposed another, even more isolated site, on ranchland next to the San Marcos Municipal Airport. There are just a few farms and ranch houses nearby.

This time, the pilots balked.

"There was concern about pilots looking down seeing the bodies," said Kenny Johns, manager of the airport, which caters mostly to corporate jets."Odor was another concern. "

By far the biggest concern, however, was vultures, which are familiar scavengers in many parts of the state. Airport officials worried that vultures drawn to feast on the bodies could get sucked into the engines of jets taking off or landing.

Melbye said he could have addressed the concerns about pilots seeing the bodies with high wooden fences and screens, and he could have kept predatory animals away by keeping the bodies inside chain-link enclosures.

But the professor conceded that he couldn't have done much to keep the vultures away.

"I would have felt just terrible if there had been any accident with a vulture," he said. "It was a legitimate concern."

Howard Witt writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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