3-acre farm of decaying bodies a teaching hub for forensics

3-acre farm of decaying bodies a teaching hub for forensics »Play Video
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Locked behind this razor-wire fence, amid the weeds and woods, you hear the buzz of blowflies and secrets of the dead.

Some are buried, some bagged. But all are at the Body Farm because of forensic anthropologist Dr. Bill Bass.

Students and police from around the globe travel to Tennessee to study bones at Bass's body farm, an open-air crime lab layered with dozens of decomposing bodies from age 16 to 102.

The now-retired professor's research at the University of Tennessee is the bible of human decay.

"I went to the dean in the fall of '71 and said, 'Dean, I need some land to put dead bodies on,'" Bass said. "(I am) working on three cold cases with police departments right now."

Skeletons speak volumes to Bass, who has spent 50 years uncovering the truth behind the bludgeoned, burned or buried.

"Law enforcement is asking two questions when bring you a body. First is: who is it? And second is: how long have they been there?" said Bass.

The corpses are placed in all sorts of positions and conditions to duplicate crimes. They're buried in mud, locked in trunks, submerged in water. They're even hanging from trees.

"Because you think about how people dispose of bodies. You wrap 'em. Wrap'em in plastic or you have trash cans," said Rebecca Taylor, assistant coordinator of the Body Farm.

The three-acre farm holds corpses in various stages of decay.

Bass discovered how insects can help detectives determine time of death -- critical information for wrangling suspects and ruling out alibis.

"The first critters to be attracted to a decaying body are blowflies," he said. "These are the green or blue iridescent flies, they lay their eggs, the eggs hatch into what are called maggots and they eat away on the decaying tissue."

He teaches law enforcement to measure maggots. The larger the bug, the longer the person's been dead. But bodies decompose differently depending on seasonal temperatures.

"You do it faster in Florida then you do in Seattle," he said, adding the rugged woodsy terrain of the Northwest gives killers an advantage."It's going to be longer before the individual is found, and they're going to be further in the decay process."

Green River serial killer Gary Ridgway dumped 48 bodies in the woods, evading capture for nearly 20 years. The further from death, the more identifying information lost, including fingerprints - or are they?

"The third or fourth day after death, you will have skin slippage on the body," said Bass, adding the hand wrinkles like it's soaked too long in a tub and starts degloving. "This is where the external layer of the skin which has the fingerprints will slough off the body. It literally comes off as a glove."

Retrieving the often-missed crumpled skin from the scene can provide answers after it sits in warm water.

"Put on a rubber glove, slip that guy's finger on your finger and you can print him that way," Bass said.

The body farm next to the UT Medical Center parking lot is known for more than shedding light on mysteries of the macabre. Its unforgettable smell has gained notoriety on its own.

"It is a combination of something familiar, but it's wrong," said Taylor.

The stench of rotting corpses seeps through the facility. It sticks to your skin and your clothes. Bass says he's used to the smell of dead bodies, but his wife is not.

"I cannot abide the odor in the body farm," said Carol Bass. "It takes you three days to get it out of your nose, it really does. I don't care what anybody says."

Despite digging up bodies for a living, Bass doesn't like death.

"I've lost two wives to cancer. I hate mourning. I hate death. I hate funerals. I don't like any of that scene at all," he said.

But the science of skeletons poses an irresistible challenge.

"You take me out there and there's a maggot-covered body that looks and smells terrible, and I look at it as, 'Ah, this is a puzzle.'"

After a year on the body farm, bones in boxes head to their final resting place, the anthropology department's massive skeletal collection stored under the football stadium.

"(The stadium is) sitting on top of about 7,000 people skeletons," said Bass.

These fertile forensic grounds have grown since Bass brought in his first John Does. Some 2,200 people have pre-registered to donate their bodies or cremains to the department Bass embodied, including the 82-year-old doctor himself.

"I have so much enjoyed teaching students. I don't see why I have to stop when I die," he said.