Outdoor forensic laboratory known as a 'body farm' coming to western Colorado

GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. - Tucked away in the quiet hills of Tennessee, a forensic laboratory studies the gruesome realities of what happens after death. A similar facility, designed to train coroners and investigators, is being built in Colorado.

The research facility in Tennessee is located in the hills of Knoxville and surrounded by razor wire.

The locals call it "the body farm."

"We have anywhere from 150 to 190 at any one time,” said Dr. Dawnie Steadman of the University of Tennessee’s Forensic Anthropology Center.

The human bodies are donated by individuals who consent before they die.  The data collected on the grounds of the facility allows CSI teams to solve real life crimes.

"We help law enforcement figure out what happened to somebody," said Steadman.

To do that bodies are placed in simulated crimes scenes.  Some are buried in the ground or placed in a car, even in a noose.

Insects, bones, even odors all lead to clues.

The public is not allowed inside, but since the 1980s police, prosecutors and coroners have been regular visitors.

“This is not something you can do in an indoor laboratory?” asked 7NEWS reporter Marc Stewart.

“No. You cannot simulate this kind of work," replied Steadman.

From identifying plane crash victims to mass graves in war zones, the changes that take place after death all help answer the investigator's tough questions.

"We can help provide these answers.  It may not be the answers they want to hear, but it does provide closure in some ways," said Steadman.

The idea of a "body farm" may seem gruesome but respect for the donors is never lost.

"It's their generosity that allows all of this to happen.  And we never forget that," she said.

A similar facility will soon open in Colorado. Not far from Grand Junction, construction is under way for the first high-altitude body farm to teach forensic science students at Colorado Mesa University

Unlike Tennessee, it's a dry desert on the Western Slope.

"The lack of humidity and the intensity of the sun and all of that makes a huge difference in how tissue decays," said Dr. Melissa Connor, a forensic anthropologist at Colorado Mesa.

The new environment will allow scientists to conduct research that could help Colorado coroners solve local crimes.

"We have to provide answers," said Mesa County forensic pathologist Rob Kurtzman.

The facility could help find answers to cases like the murder of Coty Vernon. The Gypsum teen was found four years after she was reported missing. Markings on her bones revealed she was likely stabbed.

The body farm could help solve similar cases.

"It just has the opportunity to increase your knowledge base," said Kurtzman.

"It's maybe not questions, the scientific questions, people have on their mind all of the time, but when it matters, it's important to have that science there,” said Steadman.

The bones from the bodies are reconstructed as skeletons and used by students to study anatomy.

The facility near Grand Junction is expected to open in early 2013.

Watch video of the body farm tonight on 7NEWS at 10 p.m.