USF anthropologist uncovers the past, one identity at a time

Erin Kimmerle is an Associate Professor at the University of South Florida and a nationally renowned forensic anthropologist. She is also director of the Florida Institute of Forensic Anthropology and Applied Science, working on solving cold cases and identifying unidentified remains.

In 2014, she found unmarked graves of teenage inmates who died at the Dozier School for Boys, a notorious former correctional school in Marianna where boys were brutally beaten. She recently published the results of a two-year study that confirmed the existence of unmarked cemeteries in Hillsborough County.

Related: Ground Truth: In the neglected graveyard of Dozier, a search for lost boys and the reasons they died

In 2017, she led efforts to set up an outdoor human decomposition laboratory — aka a body farm — in Pasco County. But instead of building a state-of-the-art facility with USF, the county commission voted in 2019 to end the partnership, which will happen this year.

And in 2019, she was featured in a National Geographic documentary to determine if the remains found on a remote Pacific island were those of aviator Amelia Earhart, who famously disappeared while attempting a solo flight around the world in 1937.

“It wasn’t her,” Kimmerle said. “The mystery continues.”

She spoke to the Tampa Bay Times about her work.

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The Pasco County Commission voted to terminate the Body Farm Agreement. How is the idea going?

We execute it. It’s the only one in Florida. … So we’re looking for a place in Hillsborough County, hopefully closer to the university, which would make it more convenient (for students who) go there every day. … It’s been running for three years now and is very successful. We do a lot of training out there for students, but also for law enforcement development.

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What can you learn from the Body Farm?

There is so much this program offers, from decomposition rates to knowing how long a person has been deceased. … We’re also working to understand the natural processes that happen and to make sure this isn’t confused with trauma or injury that caused death. And that was really a crucial aspect of it. …Because these individuals donated their bodies to the University for Forensic Science, once the outside component is complete, the skeletal remains will be cleaned and placed in a collection at USF.

These are known people so we know all about their ages and how they (died) and this becomes a really valuable tool to help develop new methods of identification because we know the answer. … Students and researchers come and continue their research on skeletal remains.

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For example, I have a student who is writing her dissertation on looking at cancer and how it affects bone. … Over 20 of our donors have died of cancer. And so it’s kind of a collection and a kind of resource for medical and forensic education that just doesn’t exist without these kind of fundraising programs.

• • •

How many deceased did you have out there?

We had over 100 donors. … people sign up to donate at some point in their lives, so we have over 300. We call them pre-donors.

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Still working with law enforcement to identify remains found?

We support law enforcement and coroners. We work with them across the country. Most of the work we do is in central Florida and also in Pennsylvania… this is related to a cold case project we started around 2010 to help identify unknown murder victims (in Philadelphia). Cold cases are challenging enough, but if you don’t know who the victims are, these cases fade into the background.

We’ve done everything from exhumations to finding the cemeteries they are buried in, as many of Jane and John Does were buried in city cemeteries that were subsequently unmarked and forgotten and lost. We’ve tried to locate them, exhume them, do DNA testing, do facial reconstructions and do a lot of public engagement because in these cases we really need the families of the missing to come forward. We have successfully solved many cases this way. It’s a long process. When you think about how many there are, the scale of the problem can be overwhelming.

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How do you reach the public with your work?

A few years ago we did an event at the Tampa Bay History Center. It was open to the public where we had done the whole process and it ends with a facial reconstruction (some with clay sculpture). A family walked in thinking they recognized their sister right away. And it was really important, because her missing persons file had never been properly recorded. There was no reference DNA from the family on file, so we were able to get that. And it turns out we were able to identify her sister.

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How many unidentified remains have your teams discovered?

Hillsborough County, for example, has about 50 unidentified people. Florida has 1,000. It’s over 40,000 nationwide, so we need people to come forward.

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How do you reconstruct a person’s appearance based on their bone structure?

It starts with really examining the skull first… and we put together everything we can about the unknown person or victim from the biological sense of who you are, ie your age, male or female, ethnicity. If there has ever been a healed fracture. Many people have broken their noses or suffered other facial injuries at some point in their lives that heal but change the soft tissue and shape of your face.

So we’re really trying to rely on that anatomy and the biology… whether they had glasses or what their hair looked like, their clothes. If any of this is available from the crime scene report or the death investigation report, we include it so it’s as unique to the person as possible. And then we basically draw a face over the skull (digitally). We create a face and then of course the key is to make it available to the public. It doesn’t do much good if it goes back into a drawer.

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