Agreement reached on forensic research campus

Pasco County commissioners approved a three-way agreement that sets up the framework for ownership and operation of a forensic research and training facility on county land next to the Land O’ Lakes Detention Center.

One feature of the facility is a body farm to aid in criminal investigations, body identification and research into body decomposition.

Abigail Kennedy spoke at the dedication ceremony naming the Adam Kennedy Forensic Field for her husband, who died in January. Adam Kennedy, former principal of Crews Middle School, was the first body donated for research at the body farm. (File)

Florida F.I.R.S.T. (Forensic Institute for Research & Tactical Training), will be only the seventh in the nation. It is expected to become a national and international center for forensic research and its applications.

Pasco County, the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office and the University of South Florida are parties to the agreement.

“It’s really going to put us and USF on the map,” said Pasco County Commission Chairman Mike Moore.

At no cost, Pasco will lease a portion of the facility to USF for 33 years, with two extensions allowed, for a total of 99 years.

“We’re excited to get this rolling and move it forward,” said Chase Daniels, assistant executive director for the sheriff’s office.

The campus will have a laboratory, classrooms, a morgue and evidence storage space. Virtual autopsies with 3-D scanning and chemical isotope analysis will be done. Work also will be done in the fields of legal medicine, forensic intelligence, aviation reconstruction and cyber forensics.

A tactical training facility for the sheriff’s K-9 unit and the Pasco Unified SWAT team also is planned.

Dr. Erin Kimmerle of USF’s Institute of Forensic Anthropology & Applied Science (IFAAS) will be in charge of the university’s research and training.

Kimmerle and USF led efforts in identifying bodies found in unmarked graves at the former Dozier School for Boys in Marianna.

The forensic building at Florida F.I.R.S.T. will be the Thomas Varnadoe Forensic Center for Education and Research. Varnadoe’s body was among those recovered and identified at the unmarked burial sites at the Dozier school.

About 5 acres of the future campus were dedicated in May as the Adam Kennedy Memorial Forensics Field. It honors the memory of the former principal of Crews Lake Middle School, who died in a car accident while driving to work in January. His body was the first one donated to the body farm.

The price tag for the facility is about $4.3 million.

Legislators approved the money in the state’s 2017 budget, but Gov. Rick Scott vetoed the item.

The county’s legislative delegation will try again to win approval in the state’s 2019 budget. Conversations with members of Scott’s office already are underway, Daniel said.

Pasco County Commissioner Ron Oakley said he sent a letter to the governor’s office in support of funding. “It’s very important to the state besides us,” Oakley said.

If Pasco is unsuccessful a second time, Daniel said USF officials have offered to “tap into their donor lists.”

Published Oct. 4, 2017

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