Thursday, 29 September 2011

Bodies in the Woods

The elderly man is stooped over, carefully examining the decomposing body on the ground in the middle of a wooded area near the University of Tennessee. When he stands, he can see another body, and another, and another.

Is this the dumping ground for a despotic, third-world leader or the world's most prolific serial killer?
 Neither. This is the Body Farm.

Technically, the proper name is the University of Tennessee Anthropological Research Facility but it has been known as the Body Farm since Dr. William M. Bass created the facility in 1981. Consisting of two and a half acres of wooded terrain surrounded by razor wire, the Body Farm always has several bodies at various stages of decomposition. Although the facility began by using unclaimed bodies of homeless men, the Farm now gets over 100 bodies a year donated. The facility has been contacted by many people who want to put the donation of their body in their wills.

What possible reason would there be to have bodies subjected to the indignity of decomposing in the woods?

The answer lies in the very distinguished career of Dr. Bass. He began his career at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC identifying Native American skeletons. Identifying bones led to a cattle-rustling case where he was asked to estimate how long a cow had been dead just from its skeleton. With no frame of reference, Bass suggested they kill a cow and study the decomposition. Although nobody took him up on this, the thought of this research was always in the back of his mind.

According to the lore surrounding the Body Farm,  following his relocation to Tennessee, Bass was called in on a case of a body unearthed in 1971. He was asked to ascertain the age of skeletal remains. He estimated the skeleton had been in the ground for about a year. Dr. Bass was later horrified to discover that he was about 110 years off the mark. 

Now, the Body Farm helps answer one of the most important questions in any murder investigation -- when was this person killed and how long has the body been at this location? Sometimes, the research will recreate the exact conditions of a body's discovery to estimate a time of death. More often, the experiments simply gather data that is applied to existing and future cases.

Dr. Bass, now in his 80s and no longer is doing research at the Body Farm, is still active lecturing and consulting. Along with his friend and co-author, Jon Jefferson, Bass has written six novels under the pen name Jefferson Bass. Currently, there are an additional four facilities doing similar research. The largest one consists of seven acres of cadavers in Texas.

If you are interested in donating your body to this research, contact the University of Tennessee. Who knows, for those armchair detectives out there, you could finally help solve a real murder!

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Gacy back in the news as mother goes to court for answers about her son.

Seventeen years after his execution, serial killer John Wayne Gacy continues to be in the news as the mother of one of his victims hopes to put haunting questions about the fate of her son to rest.

For those unfamiliar with John Wayne Gacy, he was a serial killer who raped, tortured and killed 33 teenage boys and young men between 1972 and 1978. Dubbed the "Killer Clown" because he would entertain as "Pogo the Clown" at various charitable events and parades, Gacy would entice his victims to his home using various methods including offers of employment (he owned a construction firm), money and drugs. He then tortured, raped and killed his victims. When he was finally caught and arrested in 1978, investigators found 26 of his victims buried in a crawl space below his home and three more victims buried around his property. The later victims where disposed of in a river and only one of those was recovered. Gacy confessed to the crimes although he gave varying accounts of the deaths, claiming they deaths were accidental or that employees at his firm killed and buried the bodies under his home while he was traveling on business.

Michael Marino, a 14-year old boy, was identified as one of Gacy's victims. However, for more than 30 years, Michael's mother, Sherry Marino, has had doubts about the identification of her son. Despite having dental and medical records, it took investigators two years to identify the remains as Michael, the youngest of John Wayne Gacy's victims. Sherry is requesting to have the body, buried in the grave she visits regularly, exhumed and DNA tested to confirm once and for all that it is her son buried in that grave.

Sherry's doubts come from many of the facts surrounding her son's discovery and autopsy. The clothes he was wearing do not fit the recollection she has of what her son was wearing when he disappeared. More striking are inconsistencies in the autopsy and Michael's known medical history. The remains found showed a broken collar bone which had healed. Although the collar bone break could have occurred during Gacy's tortures, he never kept his victims alive long enough for a break to have healed. Michael had never broken his collar bone. Also, the remains had a molar that dental x-rays from two months before he went missing did not show.

Sherry Marino will be in court on October 6th to request the body be exhumed and tested. This will either put Sherry's mind to rest and she can continue to visit the graveside of her murdered son. Or, it may create an even more difficult question, what did happen to Michael Marino?


For those that have read my blog on the Michael Marino exhumation case, Michael's mother has won the court case. The hope is the body will be exhumed within a month so DNA testing can be completed. Originally the suit requested that the county pay the $10,000 cost but that was later removed. Lawyers for Sherry Marino are confident that the cost can be raised from the public. The court order was signed almost 35 years to the day that Michael disappeared.

I will keep you informed as developments continue.