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KBI conducts drill for forensic scientists at Tuttle Creek

By Katherine Wartell

Just off a gravel road near Tuttle Creek Dam, members of the KBI Crime Scene Response Team spent the majority of Tuesday digging pig carcasses from shallow graves as part of a quarterly training session.

The pigs served as less grisly replacements for the human graves the team is trained to unearth at crime scenes.

The team members, seven KBI agents and six forensic scientists, were divided into three smaller teams to dig up the graves in a day-long lesson on finding, exhuming and processing the evidence found within the graves.

Recovering the pigs has been two months in the making, Steve Bundy, senior special agent for the KBI, said. They were buried in early September a few feet below the ground after they were procured from Kansas State University’s swine facility, where the pigs were scheduled to be euthanized due to ill health.

Three pigs were used for the training, with one, Bundy said, weighing as much as 200 pounds.

The team waited a couple of months after the pigs were buried, Cory Latham, the team leader and senior special agent, said, so that some decomposition and natural settling could occur.

But the pigs, Latham said, are not the only items the teams would find in the graves. Bullets, cartridge cases, rope, gum and pop bottles also were deposited.

Latham said the average grave is about 18 to 24 inches deep. To ensure that evidence isn’t damaged during the excavation process, investigators must dig thin layers at a time with a sharp trowel or, ideally, a shovel that has been sawed off at the edge.

The dug-up dirt is then placed into buckets, marking which quadrant of the grave the dirt came from, and poured onto a sifter, so that no piece of evidence, however small, is overlooked.

The graves themselves, Latham said, are measured and the location of each piece of evidence is carefully tracked and noted.

Latham said that among the forensic scientists present were DNA analysts, latent print examiners and chemists. He said all team members have general training.

Six of the members, he said, have attended a 10-week program at the National Forensic Academy in Knoxville. There they spent a week at the Body Farm, where bodies that have been donated to science are placed into different scenarios within a 2.5 acre wooded plot so that their decomposition can be studied.

For Tuesday’s training, the team members had help from two experts in the field, K-State Professor Spencer Tomb, and former Professor Michael Finnegan.

Tomb, a biology professor and botanist, advised the team members on how they could use plant material adjacent to and within the grave to make determinations on, among other things, the grave’s age.

Tomb, who said he plans to dedicate himself to forensic botany upon retirement, testified in Luis Aguirre’s capital murder trial in June. Using his knowledge of plant matter, Tomb testified that the grave in which Aguirre had placed his victims, ex-girlfriend Tanya Maldonado and their 13-month-old son, Juan, had been dug at least three to four days before their bodies were placed.

Tomb had based this testimony on the finding of Box Elder leaves under their bodies, which suggested the grave had been left open for longer than it took to dig the grave, despite the defense’s claim that the grave was dug hastily in a panic. He was a key witness for prosecutors by providing evidence that Aguirre, who was found guilty, had planned the murders.

Finnegan, a renowned forensic anthropologist who once helped to exhume the remains of Jesse James, also worked on the Aguirre case, although he did not testify in court.

On Tuesday, he advised the members on the best practices to use in excavating the graves, including keeping a careful eye. While the top layers aren’t expected to reveal much, he said, candy wrappers or cigarette butts could be carelessly dropped there.

To find the graves, he said, you have to look at the soil types on the surface as growth in disturbed soil will be different from surrounding growth. Weeds come in and can take root faster because the soil is softer.

Latham said the team would continue to train Wednesday and Thursday, studying a 3D scanner that takes meticulously detailed photographs of a type often used in court proceedings.

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