State funds sought for forensic training center

State legislators will try to secure about $4.3 million in state funds to build a forensic anthropology training center – also known as a body farm – next to the Land O’ Lakes Detention Center, off U.S. 41.

A local campaign also aims to raise about $200,000 for a tactical training program on-site for Pasco’s K-9 unit. Those efforts will be spearheaded by the Rotary Club of Wesley Chapel.

Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco outlined details for the Florida Forensic Institute for Research, Security & Tactical Training, or F.I.R.S.T., at a Feb. 27 press conference.

The campus has the potential of becoming the “Silicon Valley” of forensic anthropology research and an economic boost for Pasco, Nocco said.

“This is really going to be a forensics hub,” he said. “It is a unique opportunity.”

State Rep. Danny Burgess, Pasco County Commission Chairman Mike Moore, and Erin Kimmerle, associate professor of anthropology at the University of South Florida and director of the Florida Institute of Forensic Anthropology & Applied Science, were among those attending the press conference.

Burgess and State Sen. Wilton Simpson plan to request state funding for the project during the upcoming legislative session. The Pasco County Commission gave its approval to the project in January, and donated county land next to the jail.

The indoor and outdoor facility would be the seventh in the nation to study body decomposition as an aid in solving crimes, and identifying victims of murder or other trauma.

It also would bring together research and practical applications of crime solving, forensic anthropology and criminal prosecution in a single location.

Partners in the project are Pasco-Hernando State College and the IFAAS, with Kimmerle leading the anthropology team.

Kimmerle and USF are well-known for their work in identifying bodies found in unmarked graves at the former Dozier School for Boys in Marianna.

The campus in Pasco would include a laboratory for research and forensic casework, classrooms, a morgue and evidence storage. The educational focus would be on forensics, anthropology, geochemistry, legal medicine, forensic intelligence, aviation reconstruction and cyber forensics.

Technology will be a major part of the research, including virtual autopsies with 3-D scanning and chemical isotope analysis, Kimmerle said.

The K-9 portion of the project would be the first time Pasco has had a dedicated facility for tactical training for the K-9 unit, the Pasco Unified SWAT team, and sheriff’s deputies.

The new research center, called F.I.R.S.T. for short, would be a resource for universities, forensic scientists and law enforcement in the entire state. It can aid in tactical training and quick response to active shooter situations, missing person investigations, homicides and terrorist attacks.

Nocco said the recent attack at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando showed the need for greater preparedness and communications between local, state and federal law enforcement.

It also could help build a statewide database of an estimated 16,000 cold cases in Florida, Nocco said.

And, he added, it will provide career opportunities for college students through internships, as well as professional certificates and degrees.

The University of Tennessee in Knoxville was the first to establish a forensic training and research center in the 1970s. Others are at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, Western Carolina University, Sam Houston State University, Texas State University in Carbondale, Southern Illinois University and Colorado Mesa University.

The “body farm” label came into use after crime novelist Patricia Cornwell wrote “The Body Farm” in 1994. Her protagonist, Kay Scarpetta, solves a child’s murder with help from a secretive research facility in Tennessee known as the Body Farm.

In 2015, USF proposed a forensic training center in Hillsborough County’s Lithia Springs. Nearby residents objected, and USF dropped the project.

Residents had concerns about safety and security with a “body farm” near their neighborhood.

The proposed site will be fenced off, and Moore said, “There’s no chance of anyone getting in here and disturbing the site. It’s a great opportunity not just for our people, but for people nationwide to come here and participate.”

Published March 8, 2017

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