Nine animals shot in August; three left above ground and six buried to examine their decomposition
At least, that was Nick Cercone’s impression the first time he dug up his decomposing, bullet-wounded pigs.
The unappetizing work is part of his University of Windsor study on forensic science and ballistics, also a partnership with the Centre for Forensic Science and Windsor police. It’s the first time such a project has been undertaken in Windsor. The work may be uncommon and cutting edge, but that doesn’t mean it’s glamorous.
„The best way I can describe it is ’stinky,‘ “ said Cercone, 20, in his fourth year of university’s forensic science program. „It smelled awful. I played football all through high school so I don’t have a problem getting dirty.
But the odour was a little bit too much to handle at times.“
The project began over the summer when researchers received nine dead pigs from a local farmer. They shot the carcasses, left three above ground and buried six on Aug. 18 behind the police training centre. Then they waited as the bodies decomposed over the hot summer months.
S herah VanLaerhoven, chair of forensic science programs and associate professor of biological sciences, said the project has three objectives.
The first is to look at whether investigators can recover the „distance to target information“ from a bullet wound after decomposition, based partly on the gunshot residue sprayed on the victim.
„Depending on how far the target is from the muzzle of the gun, it changes that pattern,“ said VanLaerhoven. „What we’re looking at is trying to get those residues.“
They will run visual and chemical tests next week to see how decomposition affects the residue.
„When a body decomposes, the body fluids and everything are going to move,“ said VanLaerhoven.
The second objective is to build U of W’s database of insects that are found in „clandestine and above ground graves.“
VanLaerhoven, who teaches the recovery of human remains course at the Ontario Police College, said the third objective is training for Windsor police forensic investigators.
Sgt. Doug Cowper, with the Windsor police forensic branch, said the training is important because they don’t get as much on the job practice as investigators in more violent jurisdictions – Windsor has had no homicides for the past two years.
„In order to keep your skills up, it’s important for us to do that collaborative effort with the university and do these training exercises,“ he said. „That way, when we do run across a real crime scene, we’re better equipped to deal with it and make sure evidence doesn’t get destroyed.“
P reserving evidence, in mother nature’s unpredictable realm, isn’t always as easy as it sounds. It requires delicate implements, such as tweezers, Popsicle sticks and brushes, along with a lot of patience.
„This is extremely meticulous,“ said Cowper.
„We’re not using shovels. We’re using little hand-held things to scrape the ground. This is just a tidbit of what you’d find if it was a real human body. You’d have a much larger area roped off for crime scene. You’d have to take your time much more in scraping the soil. That’s why we use the brush on the edges. That way you don’t disturb any evidence the body might be telling us before we bring it out of the ground.“
VanLaerhoven said they dug up the first three pigs last month and found „all kinds“ of insects in the grave from the surface right down to the body. The kinds of insects and their levels of maturity can tell investigators when the victim died, she said.
That was the day Cercone suffered the olfactory overload. VanLaerhoven said it’s hard to blame him.
„It was pretty much at the height of the worst of the decomposition,“ she said. „So if you’re going to get a lot of smell, that would be right when you’d get it.“
Researchers said the smell wasn’t so bad Thursday when they dug up the final three pigs. But the stench still hung heavy in the air as group members picked at rotting flesh while the veteran VanLaerhoven ordered sandwiches for lunch.
Of course VanLaerhoven, who has worked with police since 1995, is at the point now where she hardly thinks about the grisly sights and smells.
„You notice the smell but you don’t necessarily pay attention to it,“ she said.
„But there is one thing that you absolutely don’t want to do. There’s that myth that you put Vicks (VapoRub) under your nose. It just opens your nose and you smell it that much more.“