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New forensics training 'body farm' for FGCU students taking shape in Pasco County

FGCU students get hands on experience at body farm
Posted at 1:56 PM, Feb 22, 2019
and last updated 2019-02-26 01:09:33-05

PASCO COUNTY, Fla — Students in Florida Gulf Coast University’s Department of Justice studies are getting a unique opportunity to hone their skills.

The students are working at the new Forensics Institute for Research, Security and Tactics north of Tampa.

“Our interns, our undergraduate students will be coming up here and being a part of the Pasco County Sheriff’s office and FIRST, training program,” said Professor Heather Walsh-Haney, chair of the Department of Justice Studies.

FIRST thing is to set up a rubble pile for students, law enforcement and K-9 teams to practice looking for human remains or survivors. A second rubble pile, along with a center for cybersecurity, and a drone facility will be added in the future.

FGCU's body farm is 1 of 7 in the country

The facility already has a body farm, that has been up and running for a couple years, one of only 7 throughout the country. The goal is to help researchers determine how somebody died, and under what circumstances.

“It sounds a little strange, but we are going to be shooting the bodies, burning the bodies, blowing the bodies up, these are donated bodies because these are people who want to help public safety in the future,” said Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco.

A training center for law enforcement around the world

Sheriff Nocco envisions this place as a training center for not just state and local police officers, but law enforcement around the world.

FGCU graduate student Dayanira Lopez wants to take what she learns back to her home country of Honduras, which has been ravaged by war.

“There has been a lot of violence against the innocent, and my family itself has been personally affected by it, and I have done some work with Doctor Walsh-Haney in Guatemala, where there has been genocide for a period of 30 years.”

Studying decomposition in Florida's soil

The mock disaster at the facility resembles a building with an elevator shaft, broken ceiling, collapsed concrete, and the body farm where researchers can study varying stages of decomposition in Florida’s unique soil.

“The smell of decomposition is one that’s very unique, and those of us in the forensics field are very familiar with, so you want to look for any bone, soft tissue, clothing, a wallet, shoe identification,” said Lopez.

It’s the kind of work being done right now in Charlotte County, where forensic teams are searching for the remains of a woman missing since 1995.The knowledge can also be applied to natural or man made disasters like a pedestrian bridge that collapsed at Florida International University in 2018.

“After a real event, whether it's a bombing or a natural disaster event, we will treat that as one individual scene and everyone has to bring together their expertise,” said FGCU visiting professor Xenia Kyriakov.

Kyriakov is a forensics investigator from the country of Cyprus, she’s spending the year working with the FGCU forensic studies students.

Most of those involved in the program realize even the most complete reenactment can’t replicate some of the disturbing scenes these future forensic investigators may encounter in the field.

“I know that no matter how hard it might be see the things that we see, at some point the work that we do will hopefully find justice for this person,” said Lopez.

The FIRST training complex will be fully operational by January 2020, forensic studies students from USF will also use the facility.

Full story on Fox 4 News Monday at 10PM...