Johnny's Rotten


Strange Harvest at the Body Farm

"Friends help you move.  Real friends help you move bodies."

- Somewhere on the Web

"Ghoulish" scenario: The University of Tennessee's Anthropology Research Facility studies human decomposition for information to help solve crimes.

Knoxville, Tennessee - After two burglars shot Murray Marks' friend, after they beat Marks, bound him, gagged him and readied a bathtub for drowning, the order was given.

"Kill him."

There are many things about that night 14 years ago that haunt Marks.  But the eyes, the vacant stare of violent intent, forever imprinted the reality of life's dualism.  Good and evil, murdered and murderer, justice and injustice.  It's all very tangible.

"I can't do it," said one burglar to the other.  "He looks too much like Jesus."

If not for Marks' resemblance to the Western depiction of Christ - the slightly dark complexion, dark hair, dark beard, slender features and soulful eyes - Marks might not work among the dead today.

The Caretaker: Murray Marks, who runs the forensic lab, respects the dead.  "The body is the temple of God; you should not desecrate it," he says.

by Greg Barrett

Researchers lift clues of death from a field of donated cadavers

All of this is to explain why a deeply spiritual man chooses to run a forensic lab with a ghoulish nickname: the Body Farm.  Why this 45-year-old professor wades every day through the muck of corpses dropped like litter among the oak and hickory of East Tennessee.  And why an outdoor research facility in this Bible Belt city strives to be inconspicuous even as it trains the FBI and is touted by crime fighters nationwide as their brick on the scales of justice.  Forensic facts gleaned from the human rot at the University of Tennessee Medical Center have been credited with jailing murderers from Mississippi to Arizona.

Still, the indignity of it all.  The knuckle-size flies, the putrid gases, the vulture circling this very moment.  The odour, which Marks describes as "unlike anything else," can be rancid, vaguely similar to wet leather mixed with eggs or sweat or tar, or a hybrid of all.  In its densest pockets, it suffocates.

Standing over a 4O0-pound cadaver three weeks postmortem, Arizona forensic anthropologist J Stanley Rhine masks the air with his cigar and reconciles perception with reality.  "We are sometimes seen as rather ghoulish," he says.  "Actually, we are just curious.  We have to know."

Time Since Death

The University of Tennessee Anthropology Research Facility is a sanitised name for a human decomposition lab.  During the past two decades, 300 or so corpses - unclaimed from the county morgue, donated by family or willed by the deceased - have written the text on forensic anthropology's method for gauging "time since death."  But the messy research presents its own sort of dualism: the good and bad that co-exist in the interest of science and justice.

It is good that anthropologists have fresh cadavers on which to intrude.  Guilt or innocence can hang on the research; maggots, beetles, volatile body fluids, putrescent gases and such are markers that yield clues about how long a person has been dead.

When cab driver Michael Rubenstein was found guilty last year of a triple homicide in Pike County, Mississippi, the conviction resulted in part from pupal casings shed by maggots as they matured into adult flies.  Research from Knoxville told jurors that the victim had been dead for at least two weeks, contrary to Rubenstein's testimony.

It is bad, however, that the family of a grandmotherly woman from rural Tennessee found in March that they could not afford a burial.  When they donated her corpse to research, they probably never envisioned her exactly like this: naked and on her back in dirt and gravel, legs splayed to allow flies easy access to places once considered private.

Hers is one of 29 corpses laid out in various states of disrepair on two acres that have the eerie feel of a battlefield.  Femurs and tibias are exposed and hollowed out like celery.  Eye sockets are cavernous.  Expressions are dulled by the appetites and elements of nature.

There is no dignity in entering the food chain.

Marks knows this and tiptoes around the sensitive nature of his work.  Where others, like founding director William Bass III, have appeared glib, Marks is reverent on the property, as one might be at a graveyard.

Bass, 72 and retired for three years, welcomed visitors and once joked to a reporter that he should have a choo-choo train circle the property to ferry tourists.  After novelist Patricia Cornwell did research with Bass in 1993, she tabbed the facility - and her book based on it - the Body Farm.  It stuck, in part, because Bass peppers lectures and interviews with the moniker.

All of this bothers Marks.  "I cannot divorce myself from the fact that I am the caretaker of these people," he says.  "I respect this incredibly precious gift.  They are not things to be gawked at."

He doesn't use the term Body Farm, and he frowns on this spring day when a visiting entomologist hollers to FBI agents undergoing training: "Hey, we've got eggs in a nose over here if anyone wants to see."

Training ground: FBI agents scour the Body Farm, encountering everything from beetles to body fluids.

The nose is that of the rural Tennessee woman, whose death is so fresh that her right arm still bears the bruise of a hospital IV.  The eggs are that of the iridescent blowfly, which typically lingers on dung.

"This may not have been her wishes," Marks says of the woman, "but for economic reasons or whatever, they were of her family.  I just hope that when the families (of the corpses) see crimes solved, they realise that maybe their relatives contributed."

Yet the facility's most outspoken advocates - Bass and Marks - are not likely to donate their bodies to this hillside overlooking the Tennessee River.

Marks: "I'm not sure I want people poking at my genitals, or vultures eating them."
Bass: "I hate flies.  If it weren't for the damn flies, I'd do it."

Only One of These Places

Tennessee's decomposing facility may be the only one of its kind in North America, perhaps the world.  Bass says that if there is another one anywhere, the scientists are not publishing their studies.

By all accounts, however, one is not enough.  A body decomposes differently in the temperate climate of Tennessee than it does in the frigid cold of Michigan or the desert heat of Arizona.  The head of a man hanged in Tennessee will eventually rip from the rotting corpse and fall to the ground, Bass says.  In the desert Southwest, the body would mummify and the neck stretch, probably until the feet touch the ground.

But plans to open similar facilities at other universities have been rejected over the years.  "For all the obvious reasons, you have only one of these places in the world," says Michigan State University forensic anthropologist Todd Fenton, who will propose a plan this spring for a decomposing facility in East Lansing.

He calls his chances a long shot.  "People are uneasy with this kind of research," he says.  "People aren't very good with death in general in our country.  And I think public uneasiness might affect the kind of research being allowed.  I think that is a mistake."

Marks was once asked to study the decomposition rate of a corpse hung by a noose.  He refused.  "We don't cut them up, burn them up or hang them," he says.  "There are still some basic tenets.  The body is the temple of God; you should not desecrate it."

Yet it is this same philosophy that has anthropologists and the FBI worried about news coverage and keeps the Body Farm on edge.

"The second we become a liability to this university," Marks says, "we're gone."

Source: probably USA Today April 2001 (sorry, I lost that part) via Gannett News Service; photo credit Heather Martin Morrissey

See also:

bulletBones, Bugs and Batesville for a slightly different slant on the "Body Farm" - ...the object of my greatest curiosity was at the centre of [an] almost park-like area - the Batesville study.  Four cement vaults (painted black to absorb more heat) sat side-by-side on top of the ground.  Two tubes ran out of the end of each into a mechanical unit tucked under a small shelter nearby, one outlet marked "liquid," the other marked "air"...

At the Tennessee body farm, more than 100 people have filed donor applications this year, up from last year, and more than 600 are on file from the past 10 years, according to Dr Richard Jantz, director of the university's Forensic Anthropology Center.  Roy Crawford, a 54-year-old mining engineer and part-time forensic engineer from Whitesburg, Kentucky, decided to donate his body in 1993 after overcoming a bout with cancer.  As someone who has attended classes at the body farm, Crawford views his commitment as a moral duty on par with donating his body for medical research.  "I like the idea that one day research done on my body might be used to catch a murderer," he said. He knows some might think such use of bodies to be disrespectful.  "But I look at it as a scientific laboratory in nature, and I think nature is beautiful," he said.  "The idea of being propped up against a tree to decompose sounds a whole lot better than being locked in a box and preserved under the ground."

On the Net:

bulletUniversity of Northern Iowa Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Criminology:
bulletUniversity of Tennessee Forensic Anthropology Center:

Your Child Studying Murders?  Forensics Is The Hot New Subject

Teachers Say It Can Entice Bored Kids, but Sceptics See a Focus on Violence

by Barbara Carton

Last summer, Minneapolis teacher Bobbie Rush led 22 ninth graders to a deserted stretch of Mississippi River shoreline.  There, they came upon a mock crime scene: a dismembered mannequin in a car trunk, a severed arm in a grocery bag and a bloody hacksaw.  That wasn't the only macabre tableau the teenagers encountered.  During a separate field trip to the city morgue, they saw a decomposed cadaver crawling with maggots and a mutilated corpse being boiled so the bones could be examined for signs of foul play.  "Another guy got buried alive while working in a ditch," recalls 15-year-old Heather Callahan, who thought the trip was fun.  "He was already cut open and everything."

Aiming to keep kids interested in an era of fast-paced, reality-based entertainment, more schools have begun offering courses on forensics, the science of applying medical facts to legal problems.  Teachers are also using the subject to perk up subjects like biology and even English.

Massive Crime Scene

The Minneapolis students were enrolled in a forensics course as part of a federally funded academic-enrichment program that the University of Minnesota offers for disadvantaged students.  In Davenport, Iowa, the school district is considering making forensics an elective for all 9th and 10th graders in 2003.  The American Academy of Forensic Sciences, a 5,000-member group based in Colorado Springs, Colorado, is planning a "Forensic Science Education Initiative" for 200 high-school teachers from around the country in July.  The academy says the workshop will feature a "massive crime scene" and seminars with names like "Blood Splatter."

There aren't statistics on how many schools offer forensics courses.  But the National Science Teachers Association says forensics is growing in popularity and is a good way to motivate students weaned on crime shows like CBS's popular Crime Scene Investigation.  Meanwhile, a cottage industry of books and hands-on kits for students is also taking shape.

While the forensic science used in courtrooms is based upon sophisticated chemistry and physics, some educators worry that if the topic is simplified for high-school consumption, it can turn into something frivolous.  Glenbard West High School in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, was one of the earlier schools to use forensics as a teaching tool, beginning in the late 1980s.  But a 9-week unit taught to some freshmen was dropped by the mid-1990s because the school's science department concluded it was "light on scientific knowledge," according to a spokeswoman for Susan Bridge, the principal at Glenbard West at the time.

Another concern is that at a time when teachers and: families are trying to cope with the aftermath of highly publicised school shootings, immersing students in death and destruction could cause distraction and even emotional harm.  "I call this 'Science of the Lambs' - this is not a PG subject," says James Alan Fox, a professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University in Boston, alluding to the gory thriller about a serial killer and a cannibal.  "Murder exists, but it's a lot less common than you would think, based on television."  He says children can be desensitised to violence or traumatized as a result of dealing with crime-scene material.

Helter Skelter

Russ Skiba, a school-violence researcher at Indiana University, says, "Students are routinely being suspended and expelled from school for writing very graphic descriptions of how they might murder an assistant principal, and then we're turning around and presenting Helter Skelter."  HelterSkelter, the 1974 book about cult-leader and murderer Charles Manson, is on the recommended-reading list for forensics students in teacher James R Hurley's class at Waverly-Shell Rock High School in Waverly, Iowa.  Several years ago, Mr Hurley initiated a correspondence with Mr Manson, who is serving a life sentence in California.  The science teacher shares the letters with his class of 65 seniors as part of an effort "to make classic cases real to them," Mr Hurley says.  A sample dispatch from the killer: "Hurley, I've never done anything I had to study.  All I've learnt has been by mistake."

The teacher says he has received about 20 letters from Mr Manson, some including drawings of a human skull with fangs and a hole in the forehead.  Mr Manson's 1969 murders of actress Sharon Tate and six others remain important because they "startled the nation in [their] brutality" and because of the psychological power Mr Manson exerted over his followers, the teacher adds.

David Hanawalt, 18, raves about the class, which he just finished.  Students videotaped true-crime tv shows and critiqued them in class.  Mr Hanawalt says he wasn't scared by anything discussed, although he found his teacher's correspondence with Mr Manson "a little creepy."  David's mother, Barbara Hanawalt, agrees that the correspondence "was a little disconcerting."  But she also praises the a class, saying, "Anytime you can broaden your horizons and learn something, it's a good idea."

The high point of many forensics courses is a mock murder, which students are taught to unravel using the biology of blood-typing or the physics of bullet trajectories.  Such faux crimes often involve the "slaying" of faculty.

In Stockbridge, Georgia, Tom Boutwell, an assistant principal at Stockbridge High School, was "murdered" last year after eating "poisoned" oatmeal as part of the biology program's forensics unit.  For the lesson, Mr Boutwell agreed to lie on the floor, his head dripping with fake blood.  As students looked on, his body was covered with a blanket and carted away on a stretcher.

Mr Boutwell says such simulations are valuable learning tools.  "It's bad that tragedy is part of the real world," he says.  "But through tragedies like this, students are able to learn subjects like forensic science."

At Mehlville High School in St Louis, where forensics students wear "Crime Scene Unit" t-shirts, last year's mock murder involved the killing of three teachers at an after-school faculty meeting.  This year, teacher Michael Szydlowski is planning a simulated kidnapping of two students by a staff member.  Students will narrow down the possible suspects by analysing the crime scene and examining such evidence as hair and fibre samples, he says.

Proponents say such classes boost problem-solving skills in chemistry, statistics and other disciplines and can awaken scientific interest in students.  Timothy Schwartz, 16, who attends high school in Essex Junction, Vermont, says he failed introductory earth science last year because he found it boring and slept through every class.  But an enthusiastic Mr Schwartz now wears a white lab coat emblazoned with "Forensics" across the back and takes field trips to such places as the state-police crime lab.  He has helped with a class project on the John F Kennedy assassination, which included using lasers to trace the trajectory of the fatal bullets and reconstructing a life-sized model of killer Lee Harvey Oswald, complete with a realistic-looking rifle made of wood and pipe.  Mr Schwartz says he "used to love science as a kid" and now does again, thanks to such hands-on projects.

Many forensics courses are interdisciplinary.  In Erik Hein's 7th-grade English class at Stetson Middle School in West Chester, Pennsylvania, the science is taught by a colleague while Mr Hein focuses on language skills as they relate to crime.  Currently, his students are reading The Outsiders, a 1967 novel about gangs in Oklahoma.  As they do so, they develop psychological profiles of characters in the book and, based on those, try to predict what will happen next.  Each student will also write a murder mystery of 6 to 10 pages.  In the spring, they will hone organisational skills and test their dramatic talent by making movies of crimes they reenact.  "That's more fun at the end of the year than nouns and pronouns," Mr Hein says.

In addition to having students write their own materials, teachers can call upon a growing selection of forensic science kits on the market.  Released last year, the $79.95 Kidnapped! kit from Carolina Biological Supply Company in Burlington, North Carolina, is described by the company as "exciting," "realistic" and suitable for children 11 and older.  It comes with fake blood.

A spate of texts have also popped up.  Some are self-published and passed around at teacher workshops.  They include Crime Puppies, which an Iowa kindergarten teacher wrote for elementary school students.  Other books were originally aimed at the adult reference market but are now being adopted by secondary schools.

John Houde, a retired detective from Bainbridge Island, Washington, wrote Crime Lab: A Guide For Non-Scientists as a reference tool for adults.  The 1999 book, published by Calico Press LLC, opens with a description pf a sexual assault of a woman tied up with electric cord.  Topic headings include "Rape Kit," "The Blunt Instrument" and "Flying Blood."  Illustrations include one of a gag made out of a pair of boxer shorts used in the undated kidnap-murder of an 8-year-old boy.

Mr Houde says he was astonished to learn that one-third of the 6,000 copies sold so far have been purchased by secondary schools.  Carolina Biological Supply recommends it for children 12 and up.  "We've seen it bought by as young as junior high school," Mr Houde says.  "But that's not what we recommend."

Pearson PLC's Prentice Hall unit is pursuing a school market for its new Crime Scene Investigation series.  Since 1999, the publisher has sold 10,000 copies of the elementary-school version, which focuses on crimes such as a student who nearly dies after drinking tainted soda.  The version for grade 6 and up has sold more than 35,000 copies.  Students learn that in 1 to 3 days, carrion flies begin settling on corpses, which are referred to as "insect food courts."  Lab questions include: "When flies find the body of a dead human, they usually lay eggs in the mouth, eyes and ears first.  Why do you think this is so?"

For teachers who don't know how to begin, training courses have sprung up that instruct in planning realistic mock murders, even suggesting convincing sites, such as a school storage closet.  "Decide on the time of day," a teacher-training course offered last summer by Clayton College and State University in Morrow, Georgia, urged.  "Why were the subject and victim in the room?  What weapon was used?  Act out the struggle."

The session attracted 12 high-school teachers and was underwritten by a $20,000 grant from the US Department of Education.  The teachers were allowed to handle a pistol they were told had once belonged to a Central Intelligence Agency assassin, and they saw slides of such things as a man who had blown his head off with a gun.

The eagerness of some school teachers has given some forensics professionals pause.  Brent E Turvey, a forensic scientist from Watsonville, California, says he recently got a call from Mr Hein, the 7th-grade West Chester, Pennsylvania, teacher, who wanted him to lecture to his students.  "But I work on rapes and homicides and rape-homicides," says Mr Turvey.  "Those topics are, frankly, entirely inappropriate for 7th graders."  He declined Mr Hein's invitation.

Mr Hein - who is so taken with forensics that he hopes to land a summer job at the local morgue - says he now understands why Mr Turvey "isn't appropriate for our guys."  Instead, the teacher says he is trying to line up a local police officer to speak to his students about blood splatter.

Barbara Carton is a staff reporter

Source: The Wall Street Journal Tuesday 19 February 2002

Suggested Reading

A selection of books recommended for forensics students at Waverly-Shell Rock High School in Waverly, Iowa

bulletUnnatural Death by Michael Baden
bulletThe Defense Never Rests by F Lee Bailey
bulletHelter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi
bulletIn Cold Blood by Truman Capote
bulletWitnesses from the Grave by Christopher Joyce
bulletDead Men Do Tell Tales by William Maples
bulletBlind Faith, Cruel Doubt, Fatal Vision all by Joe McGinniss
bulletEvidence of Murder by Bill McClellan
bulletThe Stranger Beside Me, A Rose for Her Grave, Everything She Ever Wanted, Small Sacrifices, Dead by Sunset all by Ann Rule
bulletA Death at White Bear Lake by Barry Siegel
bulletThe Blooding, The Onion Field both by Joseph Wambaugh
bulletFatal Justice by Jerry Potter
bulletCoroner at Large by Thomas Noguchi

Source: Criminalistics: An Introduction to Forensic Science by James R Hurley

Restaurant Closed Over Live Rats, but Not Dead People

Los Angeles - The county health department closed Jack's Placita restaurant for two days after inspectors found seven live rats glued to sticky boards in a storage room less than a year ago.  But weeks after a restaurant employee found two frozen human bodies wrapped in cloth and lying in a walk-in freezer amid boxes of meat destined for the dinner plate, the cavernous downtown beer hall remains open.

Unlike critter contamination, the issue of frozen bodies in food lockers is not addressed in the California Uniform Retail Food Facilities Law, which governs restaurant closures.

Jack's continued dishing up tacos and beer while police tried to sort out the sordid details.

Quang Ly, a 22-year-old health inspector, prompted the grisly find.  He didn't find the bodies.  What he found was a freezer full of trash.  "All kinds of stuff," Ly said when asked what filled the freezer.  "Old food debris from the restaurant, and fruit.  I couldn't walk in because it was piled up with boxes of meat."

Ly told the manager to clean it up, but he didn't make it back for a follow-up inspection two days later.  Instead, Ly read in the newspaper that a restaurant employee discovered what had eluded him: A 39-year-old woman in a state of moderate decomposition and a 30-year-old man in similar condition.

Authorities identified the bodies as Lydia Katash, who owned the restaurant with her husband, Jack, and Eli Massalton, Jack's cousin and Lydia's lover.  The pair, who were strangled, had been missing since February.  Jack had speculated they may have skipped town.  As it turns out, court records show a bitter legal battle brewing between Lydia and Jack Katash over ownership of the restaurant - all part of a nasty divorce.

Lydia had taken control of the restaurant while Jack was on vacation, and continued running things while an independent receiver sorted out the finances.  The matter was set for trial - when the couple mysteriously disappeared.  Jack was given control of the eatery in the absence of his wife.

Police say they're still investigating, but they have yet to interview Jack.  "I can't really say if he is (a suspect) or is not right now," said Detective Richard Haro.

Meanwhile, it's business as usual at the restaurant.

A recent weekend trip to the tavern by a reporter revealed a crowd of mostly young beer-drinking men and a varied menu of fried morsels.

Source: The Los Angeles Times December 1992

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