To Solve Gruesome Desert Mysteries, Scientists Become Body Collectors – WXXI News

 In Health
Before she confronts death straight on, Melissa Connor always puts on a pair of rubber boots. The shelf she takes the shoes from includes a bottle of hand sanitizer, a sign warning people to check their shoes for scorpions and a bundle of wooden stakes, each of which will eventually be marked with the abbreviation “Mr.” or “Ms.” followed by a number.

Then Connor opens the back door of her lab, located just outside Grand Junction, Colo., and steps onto a gravel path. It’s squint-your-eyes bright out here, and everything is dry — the air, the crumbly dirt, the scrubby plants. The only movement comes from the wind, an occasional car on the nearby highway and the prairie dogs that come out of their dens to chatter at intruders.

“I think we have the most scenic of the decomposition facilities, myself,” says Connor, a forensic scientist at Colorado Mesa University, as she approaches a fenced plot of land on rolling hills of sagebrush, with snow-topped mountains in the distance. A whiff of something that smells like a cross between stagnant pond and roadkill wafts by.

This site is officially called the Forensic Investigation Research Station, but people sometimes refer to the small plot Connor is walking toward as a “body farm.”

She arrives at a 10-foot-tall fence — topped with razor wire, with a second gate in front of that. The double barrier keeps curious people from peering through the cracks in the big fence.

“Yeah. There are oh-so-many reasons for the big fence,” says Connor. It’s sunk 2 feet into the ground and, among other things, keeps coyotes from walking off with human body parts. “Wouldn’t be good P.R.,” Connor explains.

(Editor’s note: Those readers who are squeamish about descriptions of decaying bodies may want to skip the next nine paragraphs.)

The small plot, about an acre in size, contains rows of human remains. There are 36 bodies in all — donated either by the people themselves, in instructions before death, or by their families after the fact. The bodies are naked, and lying face-up as if cloud-gazing.

There are seven “body farm” facilities like these across the U.S. This is the only decomposition site west of the Mississippi, and the only one in a dry climate.

“This is Mr. 1612,” says Connor as she stands over a body teeming with maggots and flies. “He came in late in 2016. The insects have found the incisions from the autopsy and laid their eggs there, and they’re doing their thing.”

“Aggressive wriggling,” adds Christiane “Chrissie” Baigent, a research assistant at the station, who checks on the bodies daily. She’s the one who will eventually collect each set of remains once they’ve finished decomposing, bring them to a gentle boil in the lab to remove any remaining tissue, and mark each bone with a number before adding the skeleton to a slowly growing teaching collection.

“There’s no one, absolutely no one, who looks good in decomp,” says Connor, who trained as an archaeologist before excavating mass graves in Croatia, Rwanda, Cyprus and Iraq — primarily with a group called Physicians for Human Rights.

Connor and Baigent are so accustomed to the sight and smell of rotting human bodies that their stomachs will growl at lunchtime, even if at that very moment they’re crouched over a bloated corpse.

Usually, bodies go from greenish to grayish to brown and black as generations of insects eat everything except the skeleton. But that’s not what will happen to Mr. 1612. Out here, the usual rules of decay don’t apply.

Instead of turning gray, for example, his body might turn as bright orange as a traffic cone. His skin will dry out and harden so much that bugs won’t be able to chew through it.

Out here in the desert, Mr. 1612 will likely become a mummy. When he does, it’ll look like he’s decaying in slow motion.

Increasingly important work

About 700 miles south, in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona, the lessons from the Colorado body farm are all too relevant.

“There are literally thousands of migrants dying every year,” says Bruce Anderson, a forensic anthropologist with the Office of the Medical Examiner in Pima County, Ariz. “We still have bones and bodies coming in, if not on a daily basis, on a weekly basis.”

Over the last 20 years, he says his office has worked on identifying the remains of almost 3,000 people known or thought to have crossed the border without documentation. Some of them were alive 10 minutes before border patrol found them, he says. Others had been dead for decades. Many of these people likely died trying to cross the border into the U.S.

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