LAND O’ LAKES — Pasco County officials huddled and then broke ground on Wednesday, kicking off construction of a crime-solving facility that Sheriff Chris Nocco hopes will attract researchers and partners from around the world.
Dozens of officials came to see officials break ground for the main building of the Florida Forensic Institute for Research, Security and Tactics. The FIRST complex, as it is known, is a joint effort between the Pasco County Sheriff's Office and the University of South Florida.
FIRST’s home will be the Thomas Varnadoe Forensics Education and Research Center. It is named in honor of a 13-year-old boy from Brooksville who died under suspicious circumstances in 1934 while he was a student at the state’s Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys.
Varnadoe’s remains, which were buried on the grounds of the reform school in Marianna, northeast of Tallahassee, were identified in 2014 evidence by a forensic anthropology team at USF using DNA. The state closed the Dozier School in 2011, leaving behind decades of alleged questionable deaths and physical and sexual abuse of its students.
FIRST research on the grounds is already underway, according to Kevin Doll, public information officer for the Sheriff's Office. Donated bodies are in the field and have been for about a year. The corpses in the field are being studied to advance forensic science, although Doll noted the research is not handled by the sheriff's office. And while the facility has garnered a lot of media attention as a “body farm,” used to study how corpses hold up in the elements, Nocco said on Wednesday that the campus will have wide-ranging uses beyond forensic studies.
Nocco told the audience the facility will train canines, study cybersecurity and house vehicles. The county received $4.3 million from Florida state government, and $30,000 from Rotary District 6950 for bleachers and lighting for the K-9 training area. The Rotary clubs presented their check to Nocco on Wednesday.
Nocco said Bob White, his predecessor as Pasco sheriff, was right to jump at the chance to snag the research and training facility, a campus that will train law enforcement officers from all over.
“Where others have turned it down, Pasco saw a jewel,” said Nocco. “And from that jewel, we keep building it up, and it keeps growing and growing ... This is a Florida project.”
Nocco said there is only one such forensic field that is joint venture between law enforcement and a university. But Pasco's is the only one in a subtropical environment. That's important because bodies decompose differently in different environments, said Doll. The research could also help preserve evidence.
The Pasco County body field, made up of 3.5 acres, opened in May 2017, not far from the detention center, near Central Boulevard. One of the first bodies was donated by the late Adam Kennedy, the principal of Crews Lake Middle School, and his widow, Abigail. Adam Kennedy died driving to work in January 2017, according to Fox 13, and his family carried out his wishes to donate his body.
The study of decomposing bodies for criminal forensics and other research is not new. At the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, as many as 190 bodies decompose at UT’s Forensic Anthropology Center, at any one time. Doll told the Suncoast News that Florida's environment will allow researchers to observe how bodies decompose in a more humid, warmer environment than most U.S. states. It's that type of research and data that could draw experts and researchers from other parts of Florida, Mexico and elsewhere.
But the study of DNA won't be done at FIRST. Instead, researchers will learn how to pinpoint time and method of death, gleaning data from bodies in various states of decomposition. The research could help snag killers who disposed of bodies and got away with murder for decades.
The research campus and body field could mean economic opportunities for Pasco County. A Visit Pasco official said the facility could attract many research visitors, meaning “heads in beds” at local hotels. And Bill Cronin, CEO of Pasco Economic Development Council, told the crowd that the research facility could help spur economic growth along U.S. 41, south of State Road 52, which he said has been tricky to trigger.