A few years before
his death in 1997, William Maples pondered the fate of the University of Florida
laboratory he had built over the course of 30 years into a world-renowned
center for forensic sciences.
Who will replace me, and others like me? he asked in his 1994 memoirs, Dead Men Do Tell Tales. Who will hire the students I train? I cannot say. The need is there. It cries out to heaven.
Today, Maples would be proud of his legacy to the university. Instead of languishing with his passing, forensic sciences at UF are flourishing at the William R. Maples Center for Forensic Medicine.
The center integrates the work of the Department of Anthropologys C.A. Pound Human Identification Laboratory, which Maples established, the Department of Pathology, Immunology and Laboratory Medicines Forensic Toxicology Laboratory and numerous other departments to create one of the countrys most comprehensive forensic medicine programs.
From 1968 until his death from brain cancer at age 59, Maples participated in more than 1,200 active and historic cases, including such notables as Czar Nicholas and his family, President Zachary Taylor, Elephant Man Joseph Merrick and Spanish explorer Francisco Pizarro.
Now, anthropologist Anthony Falsetti and toxicologist Bruce Goldberger are continuing and expanding on that tradition as co-directors of the Maples Center.
Viewers of shows like The X-Files or the popular new drama Crime Scene Investigation may think forensic science and medicine are only about murder investigations. But, by definition, forensic involves any application of science to law.
At the Maples Center, this definition has been refined to focus primarily on forensic medicine.
The Maples Center is unique because of its emphasis on the field of human medicine. We have the resources at the university to study and teach forensic medicine, says Goldberger, citing the universitys already-strong programs in anthropology, toxicology, pathology, psychiatry, chemistry, dentistry, nursing and other disciplines.
While Falsetti carries on Maples work with bones at the Pound Laboratory, Goldberger has added his expertise in soft tissue and fluids at the Forensic Toxicology Laboratory.
The very theoretical biological issues that we address also have very practical applications, says Falsetti. And they have to hold up to the most severe type of peer review imaginable a court of law.
Perhaps nowhere on campus do the universitys
missions of teaching, research and service intersect as well as they do at
the Maples Center. Students routinely participate in research that ultimately
results in techniques that aid law enforcement.
Although Maples trained dozens of undergraduate and graduate students during his years at UF, most of them were anthropology students. Falsetti and Goldberger are developing a more specialized graduate program in forensic medicine that could lead to a job in a wide range of fields.
There is great demand nationally for broadly trained forensic scientists, teachers, technicians and professionals, Falsetti says. Our goal is to train students in both basic and applied research to help meet this demand.
In addition to degree programs, the Maples Center plans to offer special seminars and continuing education programs for people already working in the field.
This service has been repeatedly called for by Floridas medical examiners, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and various local law enforcement agencies, Goldberger says, adding that the Florida Sheriffs Association has endorsed the centers statewide mission.
To remain responsive to its various constituencies, the center has created an advisory board that includes forensic science experts from many specialties and professions at the university, in the community and from around the state.
While they are developing the educational component of the center, Falsetti and Goldberger continue to conduct research and provide service to law enforcement that have always been central to forensic sciences at UF.
The Forensic Toxicology Laboratory tests samples for about a third of the medical examiners in Florida, handling about 2,400 cases a year. And the Pound Laboratory regularly consults with law enforcement agencies regarding human remains.
Invasion Of The Body Snatchers
Police and forensic anthropologists often are frustrated by the way Floridas wildlife eats and scatters human remains, making it difficult if not impossible to determine whether the person was a victim of an accident or foul play, or even where the death occurred.
So Falsetti is using the vast Austin Cary Forest near Gainesville as a natural laboratory and the bodies of pigs as substitute victims to see how the call of the wild and natures forces can alter the remains of a human being.
Everybody has different stories about buzzards and dead bodies, and we have a lot of wildlife in Florida that will carry off remains, Falsetti says.
By determining what happens naturally to a body, Falsetti hopes to be able to tell medical examiners, law enforcement officers and others when something is not right.
People do wander away and die naturally, but if somebody has revisited a scene, it may show that they tried to hide the body, which addresses the issue of intent, he says.
Compounding a detectives problems caused by wandering critters are the Sunshine States muggy climate, sandy soil and rapidly growing vegetation, adds Mike Warren, an assistant professor of anthropology working on the project.
Much depends on the bodys location, the climate, moisture, rainfall, the population of scavengers and what insects can be found, Warren says. The reason we did the study is we need to know what happens in Florida.
One case Falsetti is researching involves a badly burned body found chained to a tree, surrounded by burned insects.
Because we know that insects come to a body after death, theres something about the time frame, the sequence of events, that will help law enforcement in terms of charging an individual, he says. Not only did the perpetrator kill the person, but they returned later to try to alter the scene.
One of the studys main findings so far is that searches for skeletons usually need to be extended over a much greater area than previously believed.
This kind of work is important because we do get a number of calls about informants who say they didnt do it, but know or heard where a body is located, he says. With a little background research, we might be able to help recover the body.
Warren is working on another project with physics Professors Gene Dunnam and Henri Van Rinsvelt that uses a particle accelerator to verify that ashes returned from a crematory are actually cremated remains and even to help identify a person based on his or her ashes.
The process is expected to play a role in resolving an escalating number of disputes nationally over so-called cremains among families or between families and crematories. Such disputes are becoming increasingly common as more people choose cremation over burial.
Warren and Falsetti sought the physicists assistance as part of their work as expert witnesses in a legal battle in South Florida, where two family members were fighting over the cremated remains of a loved one. One gave the other an urn, but the recipients suspected its brownish-white contents were not what they appeared and turned to UF for help.
Traditional cremations leave behind small bone fragments that forensic workers can readily identify as human bone. But new technology has resulted in much finer remains with no recognizable bone or human structure. Because cremation destroys all DNA, forensic scientists are running out of ways to discriminate between cremated remains and sand.
The latest cremation technology kind of put us out of business, Warren says.
Enter the physicists. Dunnam, Van Rinsvelt and Ivan Kravchenko, a senior engineering technician, knew particle accelerators had been used to identify trace elements in geological samples, so they decided to try using a process known as Particle Induced X-ray Emission analysis, or PIXE, with the disputed remains.
The physicists experiment showed that the ashes from the South Florida family contained calcium, which would be consistent with human bone. But it also showed that the ashes did not contain phosphorus, another common ingredient in bone.
Their conclusion: The urns did not contain human remains.
We think its a mixture of sandy soil with a little lime rock, Dunnam said. Whoever did this was not entirely stupid, because lime rock contains calcium, which is also in bone.
In certain circumstances, the technique may open a door for forensic scientists to identify individuals based on their remains, Falsetti and Warren say. For example, if the deceased had a metal implant, the particle accelerator also would pick up trace concentrations of the metal, even if the visible metal lumps were removed following the cremation.
Ecstasy And Agony
While Falsettis specialty is anatomical remains, Goldberger focuses on chemical remains. Lately, much of that research has been on designer drugs, particularly Ecstasy and some deadly copycats.
Goldbergers investigation of a string of drug-related deaths in central Florida last summer has brought him the kind of media attention Maples used to routinely attract. As director of the laboratory that identified a deadly new type of drug being sold to unsuspecting customers as Ecstasy, Goldberger has been featured in newspaper and television stories nationally.
Until last summer, few people in the Florida drug scene even recognized the risk of getting impure Ecstasy. Then, in a two-month period, at least six people died after taking what they thought was Ecstasy.
It all started when the Leesburg Medical Examiners Office asked us to help determine what had killed a young woman in Clermont, Florida, Goldberger says.
Police thought the woman had overdosed on Ecstasy, but Goldberger determined that the drug that killed her was para-methoxyamphetamine (PMA), a drug so new that even Goldberger, who performs more than 2,000 drug tests a year, had not seen it before.
Goldberger has been leading efforts to educate users of Ecstasy and other designer drugs to the inherent dangers, but he says new variations come out as fast as toxicologists can identify them.
Reminiscent of Maples work on historically significant cases, Goldberger also is participating in efforts to determine whether the man who confessed to being the infamous Boston Strangler actually committed the crimes.
Goldberger was invited to be part of a team examining the remains of 19-year-old Mary Sullivan, who was found strangled in her apartment in January 1964. New evidence suggests that Albert DeSalvo, the man who confessed to being the Boston Strangler and killing Sullivan and a dozen other women, was lying.
Goldbergers role is to determine if there were any drugs or alcohol present in Sullivans system when she died. Although no one believes Sullivan used drugs or alcohol, one theory is that the killer drugged her.
The person who killed her may have been with her for some time, Goldberger says. It is possible there may have been something put in her drink. Those are the kinds of facts we are attempting to clarify.
Aaron Hoover contributed to this article.
Anthony B. Falsetti
Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology
Bruce A. Goldberger
Clinical Assistant Professor, Department of Pathology, Immunology and Laboratory Medicine
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