Sticks, stones and donated bones: A look at how CMU is changing forensic science

FIRS students prepare for a day studying decomposition.

It was an October 2016 crime scene that happens on occasion in Mesa County: Hikers found human skeletal remains in the desert off 16 Road, north of Fruita.

As is customary, the Mesa County Sheriff’s Office and the Mesa County Coroner were called in to extract the remains before determining identification and cause of death.

Unique to the scene, however, was the presence of Colorado Mesa University students.

The undergraduates who worked alongside law enforcement were key players in identifying the remains as those of Roger Alfonso Vigil, a Loma man who went missing in 2013. The students were part of the school’s Forensic Investigation Research Station (FIRS), also known as the “body farm.”

Since receiving its first body donation in fall 2013, FIRS has accepted nearly 50 donations, enabling students to study how human remains decompose in western Colorado’s climate.

At about 4,700 feet above sea level, CMU’s research station is the highest in elevation in the country. The observations made at the outdoor facility near Whitewater are shared with law enforcement personnel in similar elevations and comparable climates, helping investigators and coroners around the world estimate how long an individual has been dead.

“Being able to have examples of how bodies decay in this region has helped folks understand the processes,” said Melissa Connor, CMU professor of forensic anthropology and FIRS director. “In addition, we are an education facility. We give our undergrad students an experience that is incredible.”

The student interns at CMU’s research station are in select company. There are only six body farms in the country, and only two work with undergraduate students, Connor said.

“When they intern at the facility, they know it’s a possibility that they will need to search for bodies,” she added. “We are happy that [law enforcement is] willing to ask for assistance and that they trust us and our students on a scene.”

Although it isn’t common for CMU students to assist in extracting human remains—it happens only two to four times a year—the young people are a valuable resource to the community, Mesa County Coroner Dean Havlik said.

“It’s pretty unique to have them here in this tiny place we live in,” he added. “They do some of what I call the ‘dirty work.’ They help us look for bones.”

It can be difficult to find all necessary evidence when a body has been exposed in the outdoors. That’s where the students’ work becomes invaluable.

“For example, if someone was hiking in a remote location and happened to die and wasn’t found for a couple months, animals may scatter those bones. Sometimes it’s challenging to find the whole skeleton. Students from CMU have helped us search for those,” Havlik said.

Connor said since the station’s opening in 2013, it has accepted local donors but also bodies from around the country. Once the body has decomposed, the bones are added to a skeletal collection for continued study.

FIRS is for education and research only and is not open to the public— or even donors’ families—out of respect for the bodies. Donations enable CMU students and researchers to continue making valuable findings that may bring justice to the deceased and closure to their families.

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Interested in becoming a FIRS donor?

Donors help FIRS continue its mission of education and research. Once a body is donated, it’s placed in an outdoor laboratory and allowed to decay naturally. Once it is skeletonized, it’s collected, cleaned and added to the school’s skeletal collection for further study.

There is no cost to donate a body within 75 miles of Grand Junction at the time of death. The decedent’s estate must assume responsibility for transporting bodies to the facility if death occurs farther away.

All donors are accepted, except those with infectious diseases such as hepatitis or tuberculosis, or those with antibiotic-resistant infections.

Ultimately, family or next of kin has final say on whether or not a body will be donated. CMU will not fight for a donation, so be sure to make any desires known prior to death.

To donate your body to CMU’s Forensic Investigation Research Station, visit www.coloradomesa.edu/firs to find donation forms. Contact Connor at mconnor@coloradomesa.edu or 248-1219 with further questions.

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