FBI Hunts for 'Clandestine Burials'

A key element of training for FBI Evidence Response Teams is learning how to find and properly excavate burial sites while preserving potential evidence.

Video Transcript


(sounds of people milling about, donning protective gear)

Slate: Every year a select group of FBI Evidence Response Team members trains in the recovery of human remains.

Slate: The weeklong training takes place at the Anthropology Research Facility in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Slate: The Body Farm

Lindsay Caldwell, Anthropology graduate student, Louisiana State University: The overall goal of the project is to find a clandestine burial and use the proper archeological techniques to excavate that burial. So right now the first step that they’re doing is do an overall survey of the area, and actually right now they are going to stand in a line and kind of travel down this fence line. And they have probes, so they’re going to probe for a burial and see what they think might delineate a grave.

Caldwell (to students): It can be on a slope. It doesn’t have to be flat surface that we’re working with. You know, it could be on a slope, could be on a slant. It could be underneath some leaves over there. Just because you don’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not there.

Dr. Murray Marks, University of Tennessee: So the main thing today is the discovery of the grave and then the beginning of the excavation, which looks at soil changes and the beginning of the map, putting in the datum point. Getting the burial or site of interest situated in space. And that’s the main thing: mapping it in with datums and things of that point. So today’s kind of the analytical part of getting the grave situated. Towards the end of the afternoon bone will be discovered and mainly tomorrow or Day Three is the actual uncovering of the bone.

(sounds of scraping, digging, birds chirping)

Dr. Stanley Rhine, University of New Mexico: Well, the fundamental truth about excavation is it can only be done once. And to excavate is to destroy. And so in the process of recovering whatever it is that’s buried there you destroy the context in which it’s buried. And the context—the surrounding soil—may contain extremely valuable information about the individual: artifacts and other things that would help in the process of identification or in trying to figure out what happened to that individual.

(sounds of scraping, dirt being sifted, voices)

Jason Kaelin, special agent, Miami FBI: We’re definitely going to be into tomorrow, for sure. Um, I’d say it’s several more hours of digging because we haven’t even uncovered the second leg bone. We do have the rib cage exposed, both arms, and one tibia and fibula. But we don’t have the other leg exposed.

Gary Reinecke, Supervisory Special Agent, Evidence Response Team Unit: Well Knoxville, we’ve been here for ten years now training. It kind of resulted in a need that we identified based on casework that we’ve came across in the field, and some international cases that we became involved in. In the late nineties we were over in Kosovo and we were helping exhume bodies over there and we saw the need for some training based on what we experienced over there.

(muffled voices, scraping dirt)

Dr. Marks: Bureau personnel are some of the best students I’ve ever had. They are the expert at the crime scene. And their goal—and our goal really—is to, how do you process this unique crime scene? How does the excavator get this in the hands of the expert? We’re not trying to turn these agents into anthropologists or dentists or pathologists. If they would have wanted to be those things they would have been them. They’re crime scene specialists, Evidence Response Team. And my goal is to train them to appreciate this evidence and how do I excavate it and deliver it to the experts that are going to work on it.

(sounds of birds, footsteps on gravel path)

Caldwell: Our burial was actually placed in a bin and then last year upon reburial they took that body form the bin and poured it in this unit and so the body is curled up. It’s basically, it’s a bundle burial, so the bones are all bundled together. And so some of the issues that you have with that are it’s not extended, so you pretty much have to excavate in a circular pit.

Kaelin (to others): We’ve detected a skull but I’m guessing there’s a body there.

Kaelin: Well, as we were excavating this gravesite we found the remains of one skeleton. Upon further excavation it appears that we have a second body that’s been sandwiched in next to this first set of remains.

(muffled voices, scraping, bird sounds)

Medora Arnaud, photographer, Houston FBI: I definitely think it takes a certain kind of person to do this. I never thought I would be able to, but as the years have gone by and working in this field you get kind of accustomed to it. You know you have a job to do. And that’s what, a lot of times, I’m sure it gets a lot of people through it.

Dr. Marks: It’s just like a crime scene—well I can’t do this or I can’t do that. Well it’s not about you. It’s about the victim. Or it’s about training the agents that need to be able to go into that scene. So, you know, you put that first and you become kind of inconsequential to the mission.

Dr.Rhine: Everyone says to excavate is to destroy. But what they sometimes forget is the other half of the equation, the flip side. Because to investigate is to illuminate. And that, after all, is the purpose of the excavation—illumination.

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