Erin Kimmerle was the chief anthropologist on a United Nations forensic team helping collect and analyze evidence from mass graves in Kosovo, Bosnia- Herzegovina and Croatia, the result of horrific war crimes and human rights violations that took place during the war there.
In Peru she assisted with the identification of thousands of missing people, many of them indigenous natives, who were killed in the war with the Shining Path, a community guerilla insurgent group.
Working with law enforcement agencies, she's helped solve dozens of cold cases -- unsolved murders across the U.S., finally putting to rest the unidentified skeletal remains of children and adults.
She's also been called for the more bizarre cases, such as grave robbing. And, there are requests from museums wanting to identify donations of ancient bones and the occasional person who finds a real skeleton in the family closet.
"I love my work, it's not a job at all,'' says Kimmerle. "Solving a case takes tremendous teamwork; no one person can solve a case. Everyone brings their piece of the puzzle together and at the end of the day, it's so rewarding to see resolution for families and justice served if the case goes to prosecution.''
What about the gore factor?
"It's never been an issue for me,'' says Kimmerle, who first came to USF in 2005 as an adjunct professor after a fellowship at the University of Tennessee, famous for its body farm, a pioneering forensic anthropological research facility studying body decomposition, especially as it relates to homicide.
"Death and decomposition may not be pleasant, but they are natural,'' says Kimmerle. "What is disturbing is the violent way in which some people are killed, especially at mass grave sites where people are bound and executed. That's the real tragedy.''
In the two years that Kimmerle worked with the United Nations team in the Balkans, she estimates she helped exhume and analyze several thousand cases, which included many mass grave excavations. Yes, it was overwhelming at times, she says, but it was a real privilege to be part of the team and very satisfying to know many cases came to closure with successful prosecution.''
Since she's been at USF, Kimmerle has seen the overall Anthropology Department
, of which forensic anthropology is a part, double in size, and the reputation of the USF Forensic Anthropology Lab
One of the strengths of the lab, she says, is the emphasis on partnership.
"We've been able to build a network of organizations that we collaborate with on education, training and investigations,'' says Kimmerle.
Partners Against Crime
The list of partners is extensive. In Florida it includes Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando county sheriff's offices; police departments in Tampa, St. Petersburg and Temple Terrace; Florida Medical Examiners; and the University of Florida.
The lab also works with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children; and international organizations, such as the Otto Herman Museum in Hungary; the Peruvian Forensic Anthropology Team; the Mexican Consulate; and the International Commission for Missing Persons; and Lagos State University in Nigeria, where Kimmerle is helping develop the country's first forensic science program.
Exactly how do bones give clues to identity?
"The skeleton when alive is a living tissue and a good reflection of who you are in a biological sense,'' says Kimmerle. "Through a rigorous scientific process, we capture all that information. Basically we're coming up with a biography of all the things we can tell from the biology of your bones -- your gender, how old you were, whether you were left- or right-handed, did you have any pathologies, such as broken bones, your ancestry and how you lived.''
Then the next step is facial reconstruction. The image created is sent out to various national databases and made available to the public. The hope is that the image will trigger someone's memory, leading to a match for a missing person description.
"For every missing person, someone is missing him or her,'' says Kimmerle. "Most people don't realize that when the media reports that police have discovered some unidentified skeletal remains, mothers often call from all over the country asking if it could be their son or daughter.'' Families don't rest until they know for sure what happened.
Janan Talafer is a freelance writer in St. Petersburg, FL, who shares a home office with her dog Bear and two cats Milo and Nigel. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.