Cal U to start ‘body farm’ in Fayette; 1st in Northeast
A 222-acre site in Fayette County is poised to become the Northeast’s first forensic anthropology research facility, commonly known as a “body farm,” according to the land owner and an official with California University of Pennsylvania.
John O’Laughlin, who owns Grace Lair Farm in Upper and Lower Tyrone townships, said he has granted the Washington County university permission to use portions of his land at no cost for a variety of educational and training purposes, including forensic analysis of human remains.
“I’m saddled with this farm, and I want to be able to go home and watch people’s minds grow,” O’Laughlin said.
Dr. John R. Cencich, director of California University’s Institute of Criminological and Forensic Sciences, said a body farm, or the study of human decomposition, is just one planned use for the site.
“It’s not going to happen overnight, but there is an agreement, in principle, between Grace Lair Farm and California University, to use it for that purpose,” Cencich said. “Whether it’s looking at crime scenes, or putting the bodies there, we’re going to provide meaningful education to students in the field.”
Cencich said other uses for the site include training students to collect evidence, to photograph crime scenes and to use ground-penetrating radar to locate buried items. The aim, Cencich said, is to provide instruction that will “assist in solving crimes and other anomalies.”
Cencich said any research involving donated human bodies will begin only after the site has security in place. O’Laughlin said sensing or high-tech security cameras are options.
“It’s not open for sightseeing tours,” Cencich said. “I want to emphasize the respect and dignity that has to go along with this. It’s a serious undertaking, and that’s how we look at it.”
According to two experts, the facility would be the first of its kind in the region, joining four others in the United States. The others are located at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville; Texas State University – San Marcos; Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, and Western Carolina University in North Carolina.
Forensic pathologist Dr. Cyril Wecht of Allegheny County said he is unaware of any similar facility in the Northeast. He said he would be supportive of the Fayette facility and would like to participate in the research.
Dr. Joan Bytheway, director of Sam Houston State University’s Southeast Texas Applied Forensic Science Facility, said the Fayette location is much needed because it is in a different climatic region from the others.
“People decompose at different rates in different regions of the country,” said Bytheway, who formerly taught at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg and California University. “We don’t need just one of them. We need them all over the nation, where we have different climates.”
O’Laughlin said he envisions California University and other schools partnering with law enforcement to conduct training and research at the site. He said the university’s agreement allows the school to lease his land in sections, meaning the entire site won’t be restricted to forensic anthropology research. He said he wants other universities to consider the site for their studies as well, especially those involving wildlife and the environment.
Fayette County commissioner Chairman Vincent Zapotosky said he wants to speak with school officials before commenting on the plans.
“I respect the educational system, and I know that crime scene investigation is an important part of law enforcement,” Zapotosky said. “But I’m not aware of any of the particulars on this, so to offer comment in opposition or support would be premature.”