This body farm could help solve crimes all over the country

There are only 8 body farms in the country

Donating your body to science could help solve crimes all over the country.

There are only eight body farms in the country.

“It’s an incredibly personal and awesome decision when somebody thinks that upon their death, they want to contribute their body to science. I mean, it’s the ultimate gift,” said Mary Ellen O’Toole, the Forensic Science Program director at George Mason University in northern Virginia, where the newest body farm is located. “Once the body will come out here, we will study every aspect of human decomposition.”

The former FBI profiler said this research will help find bodies, solve crimes and help investigators in the mid-Atlantic region who run into issues when they work homicide cases. The five-acre site is outside of Washington, D.C., so they can collaborate with federal agencies, like the FBI, CIA and military, for science breakthroughs and research.

“We have our law enforcement partners that tell us, ‘Hey, when we go out to a scene, we’re having problems with this,’ or, ‘We’re having problems with this issue.’ So that really helps us to refine how we want to research out here at the body farm,” O’Toole said. “We use those kinds of examples to define the research, and I think that’s incredible, because we’re not doing this esoteric kind of stuff just because it’s interesting. We want it to be useful.”

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Bees could help investigators find a body

Bees could be the key to finding missing people. It’s one of the many interesting research projects at GMU’s body farm.

“These little scientists with wings on them, they’re going to be able to take us to the body,” said O’Toole, while standing outside of a beehive on campus.

Bees are helping investigators work murder cases.

“They’re going to be little scientists on our behalf, and I think that’s going to be remarkable. They’re going to be able to tell us where someone has been dumped, where someone is laying outside and decomposing,” said O’Toole, who retired from the FBI after nearly three decades.

Her past work includes understanding serial killers and other high-profile cases, like the disappearances of Elizabeth Smart and Natalee Holloway.

“Working a serial murder case, obviously is one of the greatest challenges because oftentimes, the victims are found outside,” the director explains. “Now we have this body farm where we’re studying the very thing that I worked on in the FBI, outdoor homicide scenes.”

O’Toole explains how it works: “If a human body is dumped outside, they begin to decompose, and honeybees, just by virtue of how they act in nature, they fly around and they land on flowers and other things. And then they take that back to their hives.”

So when someone goes missing, investigators can contact beekeepers, test their beehives for body decomposition and drastically narrow down the search area.

“If it tests positive, then we can estimate that the body is likely within two to five miles of those hives where the bees are,” O’Toole said. “We’re talking about narrowing down, could be 100 miles it could be 50 miles, but from an investigative perspective, that’s a big area to cover. To be able to determine is somebody out here? Has somebody been left out here, are their human remains decomposing out here?”

Studying the environment and how it affects a body

“The body farm here is my dream,” said Emily Rancourt, a former police crime scene specialist who now works at GMU as the forensic science program associate director.

“I would find human remains, and it was very difficult to pinpoint the time since death. I always would want to bring some answers to the family of the cases that we were working on. Sometimes we couldn’t do that,” said Rancourt, who pushed for the addition to the forensic science program.

What happens to a body depends a lot on the environment, soil type and more. The research they can do at GMU will bring answers.

“We will have bodies that will be put out here in the summer months, in the winter months, in the fall. We will also have different scenarios that we create with the bodies. We might take a body and wrap it up in carpet and leave it on the ground of the facility,” Rancourt said. “We want to bring answers for these families. We want to give a voice to our victims who can no longer speak for themselves anymore, and we want to bring all this together and collect the data so that we can help the future generations that are working as crime scene investigators.”

Chemistry studies are going on at body farm

“There’ll be a homicide, and they’ll move the body. So now we want to know, was there a body here or not? So we have to look at the chemistry that’s still remaining either in the soil or in the in the air around that area,” said Brian Eckenrode, who also worked for the FBI.

He now uses his chemistry background as a professor at GMU. They’re studying how to better find a body that might be buried with other things, like trash or chemicals, to throw off investigators and dogs.

By working with the seven other body farms across the country and combining data, forensic science could make major strides.

“It’s like a puzzle in a lot of ways,” said Eckenrode, who added some of the chemistry is there, but not all of it yet. “We’re looking for that common set of chemicals that you would say that is human, independent of temperature, humidity, soil type and a variety of other factors.”

Professor Brian Eckenrode is studying the chemistry of decaying donor bodies at the George Mason University Body Farm. (Courtesy: George Mason University)

He compared it to an explosive.

“We know the chemistry of explosive. We can determine and train our canines, we can train our instrumentation to just look for that chemistry. What we’re doing now, it’s broader because our bodies are very complex. So we decompose into to several 100 compounds. We know that and so we want to tune that down. And I think by now 20 years ago, if we knew what we did today, we will probably have a solution.”

Old technology with new applications

Cutting-edge technology is helping solve crimes faster than ever before. That technology is what students in Virginia are learning on, too, thanks to a unique partnership.

Students can flag a mock crime scene.

“There’s no rhyme or reason to this. It’s just as we find them, we’re marking off our evidence,” explains Rancourt, as she looks at a field of fake bones to teach students.

This is all part of teaching the next generation of crime scene investigators, and they are learning from people who worked in the field.

“I used to investigate homicides, suicides, suspicious deaths, any crime scene with a life-threatening injury where we didn’t know if the victims were going to live or die,” said Rancourt, who previously worked for the Prince William County Police Department.

At one point, it took a crime scene investigator hours upon hours to get their photographs and measurements, but Rancourt said the FARO scanner can do it all in just a few minutes.

GMU partnered with the company to have the very first certified forensic FARO university laboratory. Rancourt is certified to teach students who then can work with the equipment all over the world.

We watched the process as students marked the simulated crime scene. Once the markers are set up, it was time to scan the woods. They all hid behind trees because there weren’t walls to hide behind like they would do in a house. By hiding, people aren’t in the scene when it’s scanned.

Rancourt said the FARO technology is so accurate it can get measurements within two millimeters.

Once the scan is put in the system, investigators can also analyze blood stain patterns or bullet trajectory. In court, they can take a judge or jury through the actual scene as if they were there.

“Which is amazing technology we never used to have before. Before, it used to be a two-dimensional photograph, and now we’re actually able to take these people through our scene in real life,” explains Rancourt.

Other technology is also making a difference when it comes to crime scenes.

“The use of drones has been around for a number of years, but the actual application for forensic science is relatively new,” said Steve Burmeister, who teaches classes for the Forensic Science Program and George Mason University.

He also has more than two decades of FBI experience and is an explosive expert. Burmeister said if they would have drones in the FBI 20 years ago, it would have saved him hours of work. He documented crime scenes from eye level, with a camera instead of from a drone’s aerial view.

The drones are being used at the GMU body farm to train the next generation of forensic experts.

“In one scenario we’re going to bury the body under the ground, other scenarios we’ll have it on the ground. What this allows us to do is to observe the actual body from different angles up in the air and actually collect a number of pieces of data,” Burmeister said.

Students get hands-on experience as drone pilots.

George Mason University students learn at the newest body farm. It's one of only eight in the country. (Copyright 2023 by WSLS 10 - All rights reserved.)

“I really like facial recognition and hoping to sort of mirror that like with the photography and maybe drones, and see how those two can work together, possibly looking for people that might be on watch lists or helping find missing children or missing persons,” said Yvette Jackson, a graduate student at GMU.

Back on the ground, they’re also using ground penetrating radar, also known as GPR.

“If there’s an object, such as a body, a gun, could even be a rock in the ground, you would see a signal on here, it’s all dependent again on the type of soil as far as how deep it will go, but it’s able to see things that are buried underneath the ground,” said Burmeister, who adds that the technology is just like sonar.

“We’re standing in probably the most complex environment that you’re going to use this device,” Burmeister said as he looks around at the wooded area we are standing in outside the body farm and GMU. “A very skilled operator has to interpret the data to understand what is a root versus something else. What we’d like to do here at the body farm is to put a donor into the ground and study it over the course of time. That way we will have empirical data to show what does it look like over time as a body decomposes.”

It’s technology used in a different way to solve crimes and bring justice.

“It’s something that the research community will certainly benefit from. Forensic scientists will benefit from because we’re really looking for data and anytime you go into any type of a court scenario, you have to have data,” Burmeister said. “The technology now allows scientists to know things that they didn’t know before, and I think that’s where the secret here. We’re using technology to leverage it.”

Donating your body to science

Eckenrode encourages people to think about donating their body to science.

“That would be really helpful for us. I’ve given my life to science. I plan on giving my body to science when I pass,” Eckenrode said.

GMU can get donor bodies from all over the Commonwealth through the Virginia State Anatomical Program. It’s the “only program in Virginia authorized to receive donations of human bodies for scientific study. The primary mission of VSAP is to educate health professionals by providing human donors for the teaching of anatomy and surgery and medical research to the State’s medical schools, colleges, universities and research facilities.”

The bodies are tested for diseases and there is a process that has to be followed. When you donate your body to science, it means they can do the research, to prove the science, that solves the cases and trains the next generation.

“I think the most prominent aspect of all of this is to be able to do a much better job of identifying and locating human remains in order to make sure that the person responsible for the homicide is identified, apprehended and prosecuted,” O’Toole said. “What these people have done, when they contribute their body to science, will live forever.”

GMU said the research at the body farm will help smaller agencies across the country, including Roanoke.

“This is the kind of research that will improve these kinds of cases, I think, all over Virginia, and ultimately, hopefully all over the country,” O’Toole said.

You can make the decision to donate your body to science before you pass, or your loved ones can do it after you die. For information on the Virginia State Anatomical Program, click here.

GMU says another limitation to research is money. They encourage you to think about donating to the forensic research program and body farm if you are interested in helping train the next generation and find scientific breakthroughs.

The University of Tennessee in Knoxville established the first outdoor human remains facility in 1981, followed by Texas State University, Sam Houston State University, Western Carolina University, Southern Illinois University, Colorado Mesa University and the University of South Florida.

This article is part of “Solutionaries,” our continuing commitment to solutions journalism, highlighting the creative people in communities working to make the world a better place, one solution at a time. Find out what you can do to help at

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You can see Jenna weekday mornings at the anchor desk on WSLS 10 Today from 5-7 a.m. She also leads our monthly Solutionaries Series, where we highlight the creative thinkers and doers working to make the world a better place.

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