WKU students assist police’s search for human bones

Maciena Justice

Often students spend countless hours studying theories and learning skills in the classroom while waiting to earn real-world experience.

This wasn’t the case for seven anthropology students called on by Darlene Applegate, associate professor in folk studies and anthropology, to assist the Kentucky State Police in searching for human remains in August.

The team of WKU anthropologists, chosen by Applegate because of their experience and classes taken, went to work near mile marker eight off the Cumberland Parkway.

“The students were really excited to help out — to contribute to this project — but they were able to control their enthusiasm,” Applegate said. “They followed orders and worked as a team.  We were thrilled to be putting our skills to use for a really good purpose.”

Police had collected 30 bones before Scott Skaggs, the lead investigator on the case, asked Applegate to bring a team to the site. Applegate said that Skaggs needed more information in determining the difference between human and animal remains.

In the police’s first bone collections, more than half had been animal. After working with police, the team of anthropologists found 10 additional human bones.

The experience weighed heavily on Bowling Green senior Joe Eskridge, who helped dig, move rocks and clean.

“Knowing the details of the case bothers me,” he said. “The fact that a human can have such disregard for another human life makes me sick. We knew why we’re there, but at the same time, we kept it light, otherwise it could depress the hell out of you.”

Specific details about the case could not be included at the Kentucky State Police’s request.

While collecting, students applied classroom theories in real world practice by using surface survey skills, hand excavation and screening soil.

This isn’t the first time that WKU anthropology department has been called upon. In the spring of 2005, 10 students were given the opportunity to assist in finding remains from a house fire in Logan County.

“I would like to think about putting together a response team,” Applegate said.  

Applegate said she might receive more requests to assist police, since Kentucky State Forensic Anthropologist Emily Craig retired from fieldwork.

Morgantown graduate student Julie Scott said that while Applegate provided many hands-on experiences in the classroom, this was a chance to be in the field and know what it is really like in to be a forensic anthropologist.

“For four hours I shifted through dirt and rocks looking for teeth,” Scott said. “I was ecstatic. I was so happy and was doing my happy dance.”

Scott said that experience confirmed for her that she was on the right track with her career plans. 

“It validated my path,” she said.

The experience also helped Renee Pinkston, a recent WKU graduate from Leitchfield, Ky. Pinkston said she may change her major’s focus.

“Maybe I want to do forensics now,” she said. “It opened a whole new world.”

Pinkston said that it wasn’t just a fun day out, because it allowed her to see both the humanist and scientific sides of anthropology.

Hartford senior Kim BuGay said the experience brought her studies to life.

“We (brought) our methodology to the crime scene,” BuGay said.  “We were excavating the soil.” 

Beside the real-world anthropology lesson, BuGay said that it was very rewarding knowing that students helped bring peace to a family who have otherwise not known what had happened to their loved ones.