|Jon Jefferson at the gate of the Body Farm|
Stabbed Ribs, Barbecued Bodies, and Other Forensic Adventures
By Jon Jefferson
A dozen years ago, I was developing a television documentary about the Body Farm. I’d called up the founder of the unique post-mortem research facility, Dr. Bill Bass, and explained what I’d like to do: a piece that focused more on the scientific research than on the sensationalism of the place. Dr. Bass was agreeable, and fairly early in my research, he and I met for lunch at a Knoxville barbecue restaurant, Calhoun’s, to talk about forensic anthropology and murder cases.
Midway through lunch, he began describing the case of Letha Rutherford, an 18-year-old girl from Lexington, Kentucky, who went missing one day. Months later, her decaying body was found hidden in a trash pile in a rural area. Her death was declared a homicide, but the medical examiner couldn’t determine the cause of death.
Letha’s mother remained determined to find out what had happened to her daughter. Eventually she learned of Dr. Bass and his forensic prowess, and she persuaded him to examine her daughter’s remains. The body was exhumed, and Dr. Bass and a graduate student cleaned and examined the bones. On one of the girl’s first ribs, he told me, they found a cut mark. “Let me teach you something about stab wounds,” Bass said, and with that he snatched my plate, grabbed a steak knife, and plunged it into my half-slab of smoked ribs. Heads swiveled in our direction, then—as our fellow diners recognized Bass, a local celebrity—they smiled and returned to their conversations.
That lunchtime demonstration taught me a little bit about cut marks, and a whole lot about Bass: a guy who, despite being up to his elbows in death and dismemberment, loved his work, and loved sharing his knowledge. “This is gonna be fun,” I thought, and I was right.
I ended up making not one but two Body Farm documentaries, and for the best possible network: National Geographic, which—to their huge credit—allowed us to put the “graphic” in Geographic, when graphic (even gruesome) footage was required to explain the forensic research. Often that meant getting up close and personal with insects feasting on decomposing flesh; one night it meant filming arms, legs, and torsos as they burned on a half-dozen fires—a graduate student’s unflinching research on the effects of fire on flesh and bone. It was a nightmarish, hellish scene, and it got even more surreal around midnight, when coyotes began howling on a nearby ridge.
The adventures didn’t end when the television documentaries were done. Nine books later, they’re still going on. Some of the adventures are real-life forensic adventures (mostly Bass’s, but I’ve had a hand in some, too), recounted in the nonfiction books Death’s Acre and Beyond the Body Farm. Others are a combination: real-life science and sleuthing, applied to fictional crimes, as in the new e-story, “Madonna and Corpse” (download it for just $ .99 – the cost of a candy bar, and lots easier on your teeth!) and the latest Body Farm novel.
The novel—The Inquisitor’s Key—is the ultimate game of “what if”: What if an ace forensic anthropologist were given the chance to examine the bones of the most famous victim—the most innocent victim—in all of human history? Read it, and join us for the adventure!
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