Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

FGCU's Forensic Anthropologist Teaches Air Force Special Agents

Professor Heather Walsh-Haney examines buried pig remains at FGCU.
Quincy J. Walters
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

When law enforcement finds buried, decomposing human remains, there are often more questions than answers. That’s where forensic anthropologists come in.

Florida Gulf Coast University’s Forensic Anthropology department trained  Air Force Special Investigations agents Friday.

In a heavily wooded area on FGCU's campus, with quintessential Florida vegetation like palmettos and hogweeds, a group  of people  observed buried remains. 

Dr. Heather Walsh-Haney, a professor of forensic anthropology, led three special agents with the Air Force's Office of Special Investigations into the area and explained southwest Florida's distinct terrain. 

"Our soils are very special and sandy," Walsh-Haney said. "Our foliage grows very quickly and so the rate of decomposition is much faster than what you get to the north of us." 

Walsh-Haney and her students taught the agents techniques of what to look out for when there are buried human remains. There are no buried human remains on campus. Just pig remains. 

She knelt into the dirt to observe bones in a shallow grave. 

"So, I'm picking up a rib right now and what I'm noticing is a waxy white material on the rib," she said. "So, when I see that, I know water was there." 

The pig remains that were intentionally buried in that spot in 2014 smell as you'd expect them to.

This area is called a decomposition facility.  Colloquially it's known as a body farm

Walsh-Haney and her students taught the agents to pay attention to the environment for disturbances in the vegetation and if there's a lack of vegetation. 

Shelly Herold, a forensic consultant with the Air Force's Office of Special Investigations, said learning in this  terrain will help her do her job more efficiently. 

"Just getting extra training that they're providing is helpful anytime we have scattered remains or a buried body," she said. 

Walsh-Haney said ultimately the forensic anthropological techniques learned here aim to bring closure to families that may have spent years looking for lost loved ones. 

Copyright 2020 WGCU. To see more, visit WGCU.

Quincy Walters is a reporter and backup host for WGCU.