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Prof. investigates unsolved murders in Africa

USF forensic anthropologist Erin Kimmerle and her team of researchers traveled to Africa this summer to investigate unsolved murders, hoping their efforts might help them understand the science behind the deaths and improve investigations at home and abroad.

Kimmerle traveled to Nigeria in June with Chuck Massucci, a Tampa Police detective and instructor at USF, to investigate a string of recent homicides in Nigeria – an area Kimmerle became interested in after working with several Nigerian forensic pathologists.

“They were very dedicated to their work and improving forensic education and opportunities in their home country,” she said.

Kimmerle and Massucci worked alongside Dr. John Obafunwa, the chief forensic pathologist and professor of medicine at Lagos State University, College of Medicine in Nigeria, with the aid of a $315,000 grant awarded to the research team by the National Institute of Justice, part of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Kimmerle worked on a project dealing with human skeletal variation at the College of Medicine at Lagos, which recently started a master of forensic science program.

“We are collecting data on growth, aging and development,” she said. “We are comparing American and African populations to answer the question, ‘Do populations age differently?’ Fundamentally, understanding human variation helps us identify missing and unknown persons. This work is applied to modern forensic problems, such as homicides and missing persons.”

Through a multi-disciplinary team of anthropologists, pathologists, detectives and forensic scientists, the team hopes to provide answers to stressed cultural and judicial systems in Nigeria, Kimmerle said.

“From a scientist’s viewpoint, the basic problem starts with understanding how populations are similar or different biologically and how we can best estimate identity from skeletal remains,” she said. “As an applied anthropologist, this project is about making that science relevant to justice issues.”

To aid this effort, Massucci used his knowledge of cold cases from the Tampa Bay area to develop interview tactics, protocols for missing person cases and investigative processes for the Nigerian police department.

“Investigators here have to approach these cases as a global problem,” Kimmerle said. “Generally, we see that the problem of missing persons is being redefined as a fundamental human rights’ issue internationally. On this project, Massucci is able to bridge this link, and it is our hope that the work will benefit local law enforcement in Florida as much as our Nigerian colleagues.” By exploring global issues, Florida law enforcement officials could implement their skills learned in Nigeria to critically investigate cases in the state, she said.

This is not the first venture overseas for Kimmerle, as she has traveled to Peru and to the Balkans to alleviate problems such as mass graves. In 2008, she traveled to Lagos with two USF graduate students to work in a morgue, train residents in methods of forensic anthropology, meet with community leaders in Asaba, Nigeria, and help to collect witness accounts of a 1967 civil war.

Kimmerle said kinesthetic learning is the greatest method for graduate students to learn forensic anthropology. “I encourage all my students to travel and gain as many work experiences as possible – most have done or will do international field schools by the time they graduate,” she said.

Kimmerle said her experiences in Africa have been “intriguing” and that the team plans to return to Nigeria soon.

“We have accomplished a lot, particularly in a short amount of time, but this is just the start,” she said. “There is a world of possibility in Nigeria and west Africa as human rights are taking center stage and slowly educational initiatives are bringing the forensic sciences into the mainstream. We have long-term plans to work with our partners there and are very excited about the work we will be doing over the next year.”