FBI Marks 20 Years of Training at ‘Body Farm’

The Forensic Anthropology Center in Knoxville, Tennessee, has been training FBI Evidence Response Team (ERT) members for 20 years on techniques they can apply at crime scenes.

Video Transcript

Dawnie Steadman, director, Forensic Anthropology Center: We’re here today at the Anthropology Research Facility working with FBI ERTs on the Human Remains Recovery Course.

Text slide: FBI Evidence Response Team (ERT) members are provided training each year on human remains recovery at the Forensic Anthropology Center in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Steadman: What this course does is it trains ERTs how to recognize graves, excavate graves and surface remains, and make sure that they get all of the evidence and document all of the evidence.

Text slide: ERT members spend five days studying alongside forensic anthropologists at the facility, also known as the Body Farm.

Steadman: These are what we call challenge crime scenes, because you might not be able to recognize all of the evidence as bone. Some of it looks like rock. Until you know bone very well, which is what they learn here, it might not be really recognizable. And so the risk is that they might miss something that’s really important.

By coming out here and learning what happens to bodies when they are in graves really helps the ERTs learn how to better approach any sort of graves that they are dealing with.

They first will use probes to try to find graves. We train them on how to feel those differences between the undisturbed and the disturbed soil to help them locate graves.

Then they begin laying out a grid in the area where they think the grave might be.

Then the next phase is to start—once you define the margins of the grave—is to start excavating the grave. So you’ll start taking down the soil layer by layer, thin layers. We call them levels.

The whole point is to do it very systematically, because we want to make sure that if we encounter any evidence along the way that we document it where it is and we don’t knock it down into a lower level. Because all of that evidence could be really important to telling the story about what happened to this person and how the grave was constructed.

Every piece of dirt goes through the sift. And what we are doing is we are looking for any small bits of evidence that might have gotten by when we were troweling. And that might be teeth, it might be bullets, it might be pieces of clothing or other evidence that’s really important to the case.

What they will do is completely expose the grave. They will dig around all of the bones so that they are actually elevated in the soil above the rest of the grave floor. And that makes sure, again, that we are getting all of the evidence and making sure that we are reassociating each piece of evidence with other evidence. So if there’s a bullet we know exactly where that is in space with the body.

They map every piece of evidence—every bone, every piece of clothing, any other physical evidence that is associated with the body or the grave.

Once the remains have been mapped, photographed, inventoried, and removed, is the agents will then, essentially, scrape the bottom of the grave, and they will go down another 20 centimeters or so. And the reason for that is, sometimes bones or other physical evidence, especially bullets, might get pushed down into the floor of the grave. And so we always want to go underneath that floor and make sure that the entire area is clear of evidence, and that’s the last step.

The techniques that we are teaching here at the ARF is exactly how we hope that they will approach every crime scene when you have buried remains. This is something that you really have to do to understand the complexities of it.

The heart and soul of everything we do here is the people who donate their bodies to us. All of the individuals that the ERT works with here are people who donated their bodies to science. They wanted to serve, not only furthering forensic science but also the training, and the FBI training is something that our donors are familiar with. They are very proud of it. And I think it’s one of the things that the donors feel very strongly about—that they are benefiting law enforcement, and particularly the FBI directly, by their gift of body donation.