She helps unearth hard truth

A visiting professor finds the answers in the bones of victims.

By CATHERINE E. SHOICHET, Times Staff Writer
Published January 14, 2008

TAMPA - A beat-up cardboard box stuffed with human bones sat in the attic of a Hyde Park home.

There was no blood, no sign of struggle, no one left to say who, or why, or how. Only bones.

The Hillsborough County Medical Examiner's Office called Erin Kimmerle.

After two years at the University of South Florida, the visiting professor of anthropology has become a familiar face at local crime scenes.

Investigators called her after construction crews building a convenience store in Seffner stumbled upon a skeleton. Police asked Kimmerle's team to help when they removed nearly 300 pounds of dirt from beneath a South Tampa home in their search for Sandra Prince.

Bones don't talk, but she gives them a voice.

Kimmerle uses forensic science honed in more than a decade of field work and academic study around the world. Her report on the box full of bones in Hyde Park - which dated back centuries - sent them to the state's archaeology museum. Her analysis of bones at the Smithsonian helped return hundreds of Native American remains to their tribes. Her work exhuming mass graves as a forensic anthropologist for the United Nations provided critical evidence for war crimes prosecution.

"She's an amazing person," said Tampa police Sgt. Jack Waters, who heads the department's forensic investigation unit. "She's dug up more bodies in a week than I have in 40 years of police work."

* * *

On an autumn day in 2000, Kimmerle drove a truck crammed with caskets down the cobblestone streets of a Kosovo village.

She had examined skeletal remains for months, interviewed family members, studied gunshot wounds and searched for signs of shrapnel buried with the bones of people whose last words were lost.

Now the evidence was on her clipboard.

Survivors turned to her for answers. They wanted to know how their loved ones - among more than 2,000 victims exhumed and autopsied by Kimmerle and her colleagues - spent their final hours.

"It's so daunting. We say never again, but yet genocide is happening again in Africa right now. Even having trials doesn't stop it," she said in a recent interview. "But this is for that one person, searching for answers. That's how you effect change, one person at a time."

One cause of death, one time of death, one victim's final message sitting on the pages on Kimmerle's clipboard.

That day, she attended 11 funerals.

* * *

Seven years later and more than 5,500 miles away, Kimmerle stands in a wooded area behind USF's campus.

"We found more bones on this side," a burly sheriff's deputy tells her as he sifts through buckets of dirt.

Kimmerle smiles and claps her hands.

The bones belong to fetal pigs, donated by USF's medical school and buried by Kimmerle and her colleagues six months ago.

Now they are mock evidence for deputies and crime scene technicians learning to find hidden graves - one of several classes for law enforcement officers Kimmerle helped start last year.

After nearly three hours in the field, her team has uncovered only a few bones.

Some students grumble that it's slow work. That's a common observation among college students in the field, too, Kimmerle says.

"I ask, who still wants to do this as a career? And a lot of them have changed their minds," she says.

* * *

But professors and students at USF credit Kimmerle with inspiring students and revitalizing the school's forensics program.

"Forensics is just exploding," she says, in an era of increased media focus on crimes and such television shows asCSI and Without a Trace.

On the walls of Kimmerle's lab at USF, photographs depict skulls pierced by bullets, ribs slashed by machetes and bones fractured by torture.

Sitting at tables beside them, students learn how to identify bones, piece together skeletons and analyze the cause of death.

Sometimes Kimmerle brings her 4-year-old son to the lab.

He stares at shelves lined with skulls.

"Mommy, the skeletons don't talk," he says.

But Kimmerle knows they do.

Catherine E. Shoichet can be reached at cshoichet@sptimes.com or 813 661-2454.


Erin Kimmerle

Job: Visiting professor of anthropology at the University of South Florida (scheduled to begin a tenure-track position as an assistant professor in the fall)

Education: Doctorate in physical anthropology, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, 2004; Master's degree in physical anthropology, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, 1999; Bachelor's degree from Hamline College in St. Paul, Minn., 1995.

Past work experience: Chief anthropologist for the United Nations' International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), 2001; forensic anthropologist for ICTY, 2000; osteologist, Hamline University Osteology Laboratory, 1996-1997; osteologist at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History, 1995-1996.

Published work: Numerous journal articles; a book she co-authored, Skeletal Trauma: Identification of Injuries Resulting from Human Rights Abuse and Armed Conflict, comes out this month .