Podcast - Ep 55: Where the bodies are buried

Mary Ellen O'Toole looks at the camera as she speaks with President Washington
Where the bodies are buried

Forensic research on human donors is not for the faint of heart, Mary Ellen O’Toole, director of the Forensic Science Program in George Mason University’s College of Science, admitted to Mason President Gregory Washington. But the university’s new outdoor research and training laboratory—or “body farm,” as O’Toole, a former FBI profiler, calls it—is a valuable addition to the study of human decomposition in various environmental conditions for the purpose of solving crimes. It also positions O’Toole’s program as a national leader in forensic science and forensic anthropology.

And I love the term audacity because being audacious is to stand up and say, ‘We've got thousands of unidentified remains in medical examiner's offices throughout the United States. What can we do to reunite those individuals with their family members?’ We know that we've got unsolved cases out there of marginalized victims throughout the United States. Audacious means what can we do to solve those crimes? And so if my students can be as audacious as is humanly possible, they're gonna be magnificent forensic scientists.”

Read the Transcript

Narrator (00:04):

Trailblazers in research, innovators in technology and those who simply have a good story. All make up the fabric that is George Mason University, where taking on the grand challenges that face our students, graduates and higher education is our mission and our passion. Hosted by Mason President Gregory Washington, this is the Access to Excellence podcast.

Gregory Washington (00:26):

As one of the FBI's most accomplished profilers, Mary Ellen O'Toole helped capture, interview and understand some of the world's most infamous people, including Gary Ridgway, the Green River Killer, and Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber. Now as a professor and director of the forensic science program at George Mason University's College of Science. O'Toole is positioning her program as a national leader in forensic anthropology and forensic science. The program recently opened a five-acre science and research training laboratory on Mason SciTech campus in Manassas, Virginia, one of only eight in the U.S. and the only one on the east coast capable of performing outdoor research in forensic science using human donors. That's right. A body farm. The lab, which is expected to receive its first human remains in the spring, is dedicated to studying the process of human decomposition in various environmental conditions for the purposes of solving crimes. Dr. O'Toole, I've been looking forward to this one for quite some time. Welcome to the show.

Mary Ellen O’Toole (01:43):

Oh, thank you so much. It's a pleasure to be here with you.

Gregory Washington (01:46):

So you've had an interesting kind of winding career pathway. Can you help the audience understand how you got to where you are?

Mary Ellen O’Toole (01:57):

Sure. So I've spent about 30-some years in law enforcement. In 28 of those years I was an FBI agent FBI profiler. And I've always had an interest in what goes on in somebody's head right at the time they commit a violent crime. So I found the FBI and profiling to be a perfect match for me so I could better understand that. And in fact, I think at age five I started having those thoughts about what's going on in somebody's head when they're murdering someone. And I'm sure that that terrified my mother, but it's been an interest that I've had my entire life. So when I finally became an FBI agent, I heard of this program that was designed to have special agents who would work as profilers or people that study human behavior. That included behavior like serial murder cases, sexual assault cases, child abduction cases.

Mary Ellen O’Toole (02:56):

And I thought, that's for me, I absolutely have to do that. And I just found it absolutely unbelievably interesting. So I spent about 50% of my FBI career doing that and having the opportunity to interview some people that, um, were absolutely beyond the pale, just in terms of their criminal behavior and what they would do to other human beings. And then once I retired from the FBI, it's really hard to move away from that. So when the opportunity came up to be a part of the Forensic Science Program, I really didn't think I would get the job. But remarkably I did. And then I found my second home here, being able to work with other practitioners in the field and bringing initiatives and opportunities to students so that they can go forward and have remarkable careers, whether they want to be a forensic DNA analyst, a forensic chemist, an anthropologist or crime scene investigator. And they have the same, kind of the same background that I did. They grew up on these crime stories and they are fascinated with human behavior and they want to contribute to the field and they want to do great things. And they are ambitious and hardworking and amazing students that love the profession. So it's just worked out in really quite a wonderful way.

Gregory Washington (04:20):

Well, outstanding, outstanding. So I know this is a somewhat serious topic that we are gonna get into. You know, I have to ask if you still have the skeletons greet visitors when they come to your program offices?

Mary Ellen O’Toole (04:32):

We still have the skeletons. In fact, they're standing by the reception area that I just left a few minutes ago. And the only thing my faculty won't allow me to do is to turn on their voices because they do speak, but they are there and they are the first greeters that will meet you at the front door when you walk into the forensic science unit.

Gregory Washington (04:52):

Outstanding. So for those people who don't know, and it may be new to the concept, talk to us a little bit about what is forensic science?

Mary Ellen O’Toole (05:03):

Forensic science is a combination of the application of the theories in natural sciences combined with the application of that technology to the criminal justice system, especially in terms of analyzing and collecting evidence at a crime scene and then presenting that data in a courtroom. So it's the application of natural sciences to the criminal justice system, and it becomes broader each day as they add more sciences into forensic science. The reason that it's so fascinating is that it's not just theory, it's the application of the science in a courtroom setting.

Gregory Washington (05:49):

It's also been popularized by programs like CSI and others, right? People see that and they're like, okay, this is really, really cool, and where can I go to school to learn that?

Mary Ellen O’Toole (06:01):

They do see it on TV programs and a lot of my students grew up with Law and Order and they grew up with CSI and Bones and they are challenged by the possibility of resolving or solving a very complicated crime. And if they can do it using science, that's what they want. So it could be DNA science, it could be chemistry, it could be CSI, but they're very curious students and they are motivated to be able to apply their science in a way that enables them to come up to a solution for a complicated and ongoing or very challenging case.

Gregory Washington (06:41):

Okay. So talk to us about the lab, what it is and what do you hope that it will be at its zenith?

Mary Ellen O’Toole (06:49):

So we call it the Body Farm, not because we want to call it the Body Farm Laboratory. It's actually called the Forensic Anthropological Outdoor Research Facility. But I knew deep down inside that as soon as we started and launched this initiative, it was going to be called the Body Farm and there really wasn't anything that we could do about it. So we did have a much more formal name, but it defaulted to Body Farm and that's what the public knows it as. That's what my students know it as. And so that's why it's taken on this name. The beauty of having this initiative here at George Mason is because we have such a thriving program and students really want to get involved in research, and whether it's a chemistry student, biology student, anthropology student, it does not matter. They want to get out there and understand how their particular science can be improved or used to solve cases.

Mary Ellen O’Toole (07:45):

So for example, the intent of the farm is to bring in human donors and to study decomposition, but it's a lot more complex than that. We actually want to be able to study decomposition based on many different scenarios. If a person is buried, if a person is on top of the ground, if the person is in a vehicle, if a person is hanging from a tree, all of these are real life scenarios that we have encountered out in the field. And they can be very perplexing problems because decomp can cause a body to manifest evidence that's hard to interpret. And that's the goal of this initiative, is to be able to study real life crimes and we will depict them at the crime scene at the Body Farm, and in an effort to study what happens, and I'll give you an example. We are number eight in terms of the body farms throughout the United States.

Mary Ellen O’Toole (08:41):

And there are several down in Texas. And Texas did some research and found that there were very large birds that came to their body farm and these birds were landing on the donors and they were causing the donors to bruise, postmortem bruising. And prior to the release of this study, when I would see post-mortem bruising, we would attribute that to the offender, the person that committed the murder that they engaged in post-mortem behavior. And that was a completely incorrect conclusion based on the research that was done at the Body Farm down in Texas. So it was very valuable to be able to learn what happens after someone is left outside. And many of the crime scenes that I worked as an FBI profiler, the victim was left outside. And so it became important to understand cause and manner of death, time of death, what happened to the victim and what can we tell about through the victim, what can we tell about the offender? So that's our goal is to be able to advance the science and to incorporate in new sciences, for example, our bee research and our cadaver dog research, all of those are gonna advance the science in ways that other body farms aren't doing right now.

Gregory Washington (09:54):

No, that's really cool. So are there actual bodies on the ground yet?

Mary Ellen O’Toole (09:59):

Not yet. We hope to get our first donor either by the end of this year or sometime in early spring or next semester. Now we have buried pigs out there and they are there right now and we're conducting research on pigs. That is ongoing research that's being done right now.

Gregory Washington (10:18):

Oh, that is cool. You continue to use the term donors. How do you get the bodies? Is it like a donor card, like your donating a kidney or some other body part?

Mary Ellen O’Toole (10:29):

Great question. Our donors will be processed through the office of the Chief Medical Examiner for the state of Virginia. They're located in Richmond and one of their units down there is called the Virginia Anatomical Program, or Virginia Anatomical Board. And they will process all the requests of individuals who want to come to our Body Farm. So they'll be the first group of people that will receive the requests and process the requests to make sure that the donor meets the criteria to come to the Body Farm. So for example, one of the things that they do before we would ever see the donor is to make sure that the person does not have a contagious disease. Because we don't want our students and researchers to contract a disease. And we make sure that the donor has not been embalmed yet because the purpose is to monitor the decomposition. We will get our bodies through them and they will actually transport the bodies out to Manassas. And we already have a team ready to go. If we get a call, our team is gonna be out there to receive the donor and we will bring the donor in, meet them at the hearse, and then bring them into the Body Farm. We have the experiment already set up and ready to go, and we will begin the placement out at the Body Farm.

Gregory Washington (11:44):

Hmm, that is so cool. Now, you mentioned that there are a number of these labs in Texas. My understanding is ours is a one of a kind relative to the East Coast. Is that correct? And why is that important?

Mary Ellen O’Toole (11:56):

That is correct. We are the only one in this geographical area. And it's important because our geography here is different than Texas or different than Florida. So we have different weather, we have different soil, we have different insects, we have different animal predators. All of those elements impact decomposition. So it's important that we know here what goes on in the Mid-Atlantic area that we could see in an actual case. Is it the combination of the insects with the predators, what are they doing? How do they impact the body? What about the weather, what about the soil? How's that impacting the donor? So it becomes imperative for us to understand decomp in this area because we cannot use the research from other geographical areas to tell us what to look for in our crime scenes here.

Gregory Washington (12:46):

So if you're a student in the program, so right now you say you got pig cadavers out there, right? And so what do students encounter when they're out in the field?

Mary Ellen O’Toole (12:55):

When the students go out in the field right now, and they do go out, they've been working on a number of things. They will help us dig graves. They will help us take the pigs a couple of weeks ago, and they, they actually carried the pigs into the body farm and actually buried the pigs in their graves. They will then monitor the pigs for decomposition and what's happening with the pigs. Our students also helped with planting certain plants out there that we needed the flowers to enhance the bee research. We had students come out from Geography within the College of Science to help with the analysis of the soil and the geography. So they're involved with doing the preliminary research about the body farm because once a human donor is there, the ground itself, the water itself, the flowers, the plants, that's going to change. So we had to get the baseline research collected and analyzed, and then we would bring the donor in. So we have done that through the use of our students. And I can tell you, we asked for volunteers that will go out there and help with the research. And the number of students who volunteer to go out there is so amazing because they want to be involved. They want to see it, they wanna touch the ground, they wanna be able to say that they're a part of it.

Gregory Washington (14:15):

That's one of the things I'm learning about being here, really about kind of human nature in general. People do want to belong to something. I think there's a fundamental human driver. Which brings me to your other pastime -- profiling. Not often we get to talk to someone who engaged a Green River Killer and the Unabomber. So how do you profile somebody and did you find anything interesting with these individuals?

Mary Ellen O’Toole (14:43):

When we profile somebody, it means that we study their behavior from a crime scene. So, for example, in the Green River Killer, he killed for a long time before he was identified. He killed in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and the early two thousands. That's a lot of murders. That's a lot of murders. And it's a lot of time to fly under the radar screen. So that task force was looking for him for all of those years. And it became important to understand how did he get away with it because there are other cases where they get apprehended pretty quickly. Recently, there was a serial killer in L.A. who killed three people over the course of a couple days. He got arrested quite quickly, Green River, however, decades. And one of the reasons that he did is because he lived a normal lifestyle. He was married, he had a child, he went to church, he had a regular job for some 30 years.

Gregory Washington (15:36):

So people thought when he was arrested, they were, it couldn't be this guy 'cause he's my neighbor and he's very normal. But what we do, we looked at all of Gary Ridgway, who was the Green River Killer, we looked at all of his murders and he left his victims outside at outdoor crime scenes. And in fact, some of the remains of the victims were not found for decades because he was very efficient at being able to hide the bodies or dumped the bodies in a way that prevented them from being found. And of course, over the sixties, seventies, eighties and nineties, we simply did not have the technology from a forensic perspective to be able to do a lot with those crime scenes. Now times have changed and we can do a lot more. But when I first met him, I became part of the task force out in Seattle. When I first met Gary Ridgway, I was really surprised by how normal and engaging that he was. And to look at him, there's no way that you would know what he did. I mean, you'd sit next to him on Metro and you would never know that he was the most prolific serial sexual killer in U.S. history.

Gregory Washington (16:45):

But somehow you profiled him, so you knew. If you sat by him on that train, would you know? Could you have said something to him or asked him a question that would say to you, okay, I'm starting to get some eerie feelings from this guy?

Mary Ellen O’Toole (17:00):

What I'm gonna tell you may not click for a lot of people, but the one thing that is present in most of the serial sexual killers, and I say that specifically because a serial sexual killer, that's their motivation for murder. It's for sexual purposes. They meet the criteria of the psychopathic personality disorder. The old term is sociopath, the new term is psychopath. And part of the psychopathic structure is that these individuals have the ability to show you what we call snake eyes, which means their eyes are very normal a lot of the time. But when you're interviewing them or they're angry at you during an interview, or they don't like something that you've said, their eyes transform into what we call snake eyes. Their eyes lose their color, and they go at half mask. And when you see it, it makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up.

Mary Ellen O’Toole (17:53):

And if I saw someone in public and I have a couple times that makes that transformation to snake eyes, then I know stay away. And I saw that with Gary Ridgway a lot. If I said something to him that he didn't like, he would lose the eye color from his eyes and his eyes would become coal black and they would be at half mask. And I know those were the eyes that his victims saw right before they murdered him. And we know it's a neurological issue. We don't have a lot of information on why. We just know that it's present in psychopathic individuals.

Gregory Washington (18:26):

Oh wow. That is interesting. Did you talk with Kaczynski?

Mary Ellen O’Toole (18:31):

I didn't talk with Ted. Ted is, uh, quite a loner. And so he was very comfortable out at Supermax in Colorado. 'cause he lived alone in Lincoln, Montana for all those years. But what I did do is I interviewed all of his victims. I interviewed all the people that received the bombs and all the people whose names were on the sender part of the package. Because we needed to see if there was a nexus between the sender and the receiver.

Gregory Washington (18:59):

Was there?

Mary Ellen O’Toole (18:59):

No, there wasn't. Which was really surprising because that's not that typical. Usually there you'd find a nexus and Unabomber started in 1970, actually in Chicago at a university. So we thought we could see something there, but we did not. And the last professor I interviewed was at Yale and he survived the attack. But once I came back here to the profiling unit, all of a sudden we get a manifesto from the Unabomber. We still don't know who he was. And this was ’95, ’96, we received his demand attached to his manifesto, which was pages long single space. It was coherent, but with ideas that you could tell right away as you're reading it, they were very off. He demanded that that manifesto be printed on the front page of the Washington Post and the New York Times.

Gregory Washington (19:48):

That was his undoing, right?

Mary Ellen O’Toole (19:49):

It was his undoing. So I flew up to New York with another agent and met with the head of the New York Times and attempted to persuade them. They had to print it in its entirety, not just excerpts. And it had to be on the front page of the New York Times. And if you can imagine, the New York Times is thinking I'm being held hostage by this serial killer. And that's just not how a newspaper works. But they ultimately agreed to do it. The same reluctance by the Washington Post. But they agreed to do it as well. And I think that there was fear there, certainly, because what would happen if they had not done that? Would they have received a bomb at their offices? So once the manifesto appeared in both newspapers, Ted Kaczynski's brother read it and recognized the writing, not the handwriting because it was newspaper print, but he recognized the themes, the phrases, the ideas that were presented in the manifesto. His brother had seen that over the years, had recognized that that's how his brother wrote as his brother was in high school and in college. They were the same complaints and the same injustices. So his brother hired an attorney and they came forward that way and said, it must have been so hard for his brother. He said, I believe that the Unabomber is my brother.

Gregory Washington (21:13):

Did that message come to you? Did you see that message?

Mary Ellen O’Toole (21:16):

Eventually I did. Eventually I did.

Gregory Washington (21:18):

And, and what did you, what did you think?

Mary Ellen O’Toole (21:20):

There was a big part of me that thought this whole thing's not gonna work. It's gonna appear in the newspaper and it's going to produce nothing. When I heard that a family member believes that it was their brother, actually I was surprised. I knew it was important that we do it. I knew it was important that we put it out there, but I just didn't think it would have the results that it did have. So yeah, I was very, very relieved because the problem was the Unabomber said, if you do this, I'll stop bombing. Well, you'd never trust a serial killer because psychopaths, one of the 20 traits of a psychopath is that they’re habitual liars. And so I didn't think he would stop whether we placed it or didn't place it in the newspaper, he would continue to bomb. Why? Because he enjoyed it. He enjoyed building the bombs, and he enjoyed making sure that they exploded and people were killed or injured. So knowing that this produced results was a huge release, because it was going to continue, I felt until he was apprehended, and I'm not sure that we would've found him in that small cabin in Lincoln, Montana without this happening this way.

Gregory Washington (22:29):

Do you think he would have committed more crimes even though the manifesto was published?

Mary Ellen O’Toole (22:34):

I do. I absolutely do. I've had other cases where the offender tells you, look, if you do this, I won't do it anymore. I promise, boy Scouts honor. I promise you cannot trust that at all. You cannot trust that, that they will enter into an agreement like that. So I was, and I think my colleagues in the FBI and in the Unabomber task force all agree that he's just saying that, he's gonna continue until we capture him. He will continue.

Gregory Washington (23:04):

So do you help train students now to profile?

Mary Ellen O’Toole (23:10):

Actually, I do. And we're starting some pretty neat new initiatives that will allow us to do even more of that. Because I do have a group of students that want to go take their expertise more into the behavioral area and they see the value of it. So I have a class right now where students are learning how to study crime scenes from a behavioral perspective and then analyze the behavior. And then from that behavior, what they do is they explain who's the offender, what kind of an offender would've committed a crime like this? And in fact, in the small semester this time, I gave them three cases to analyze. And one of them was D.B. Cooper never saw, jumped out of an airplane with $200,000. We never found him.

Gregory Washington (23:57):

They're still looking for him. Right?

Gregory Washington (23:59):

They're still looking for him. Never found him. So some of the students get that case. Another group, they get the Marilyn Monroe case. Marilyn Monroe was determined to have died as a result of suicide. Not so sure about that. And then the third case that my students work on just for their midterms is the Black Dahlia case. And Black Dahlia is a unsolved case out of Los Angeles where this beautiful young woman that had moved to L.A. to become a movie star. And she ended up meeting up with the wrong person who kidnapped her and kept her for a number of days and then placed her dismembered body in a neighborhood in Los Angeles. And she's referred to as the Black Dahlia. So my students study those cases for the first half of the year, and they look at the behavior and from the behavior they draw behavioral traits of the offender and what the offender is like, what kind of a job the offender has, what kind of relationship the offenders have with other people. So they learn how to take the behavior and extrapolate that into who the offender is,

Gregory Washington (25:01):

What type of student goes into forensic science?

Mary Ellen O’Toole (25:04):

I think there is a type, and I've thought about this for a long time, students who are very curious, very empathic, very motivated students that have a lot of internal fortitude because they know they're gonna go out there, for example, at least a lot of them to the body farm. And they're gonna see some things that are pretty upsetting with the decomposition of a human donor. So these are students that have really thought this through very well, and students that are critical thinkers. That's the course I teach here is critical thinking. You're not born with it. It's not a gift. You need to develop it. I am amazed by how quickly students learn to be very adept, critical thinkers in a way that allows them to cut through complex cases, tear them apart, and look at sections, put the sections back together, and then make analysis about who the offender is. So I see that in so many of my students and they don't jump to conclusions. And they understand that opinions are just that. They're just opinions. They're not the result of critical thinking. So I'm impressed by how well my students bring those traits together and apply it into these cases.

Gregory Washington (26:25):

That is really, really cool. Do you miss in any way the days when you would stare into the eyes of these folk and see their eyes change over and deal with people in that context?

Mary Ellen O’Toole (26:37):

I do. I do. I still work cold cases, but the interviews, especially with a serial killer, are my love. And I tell people I'd rather talk to a, a serial killer than get a pony at Christmas time. The reason that I say that is there's nothing more fascinating than to get inside an interview room. And all I do, all I do, is I sit there and I say, I wanna learn from you and I'm gonna sit here for three hours, 10 hours, 12 hours, and I'm just gonna listen to you tell me about who you are and how you were so successful at what you were able to do and why you did the kinds of things that you did at the crime scene and to the victim. And I could sit there for three or four days and just listen. So I do love that. I'll always love that. And if the opportunity presents itself, I'll continue to do that.

Gregory Washington (27:29):

Wow, that is fantastic. So what does F-A-R-O mean and why is it significant? My understanding is Mason has partnered with a company to become the first forensic F-A-R-O University Laboratory. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Mary Ellen O’Toole (27:47):

Sure. F-A-R-O is FARO, and it's the name of a company. And this company has developed instrumentation that is 3D measurement instrumentation. So in the olden days, crime scene investigators would go to a crime scene, whether it was outdoor or indoor. One of the things that they would have to do would be to draw a map of the crime scene. And if it was a homicide, they would have to draw where the body is, where the weapon was found, where the blood spatter was, where the gun was found. That's really a part of the CSI work. And the maps are drawn by hand. And so with that kind of technology, the amount of error is quite large. It could be in terms of inches. And when you take the case to court and you testify as an expert witness, an expert CSI, you're gonna be asked what's the error ratio on where that gun was in relationship to where the body was found? And you have to testify, well, probably a number of inches. Well, that's not very close, is it? Well, no, your Honor, it's not that close. But that's our technology. But with FARO now, their accuracy is within centimeters. Can you even imagine that? And so it,

Gregory Washington (29:02):

And it's a, it's a digital 3D technology?

Mary Ellen O’Toole (29:04):

Yes. And so you can go into a room and within, within minutes you can measure the entire room. And the beauty of that is you can't hold a crime scene forever. Although there are some instances where that they have held a crime scene for years. You can take that back to the office and if you discover a week later, oh darn, I wished I would've gotten a picture of this or measurement of that, FARO allows you to do it. But the accuracy of the FARO allows you to identify where all of the things were within the crime scene with incredible accuracy. And within a far shorter amount of time. When we heard about FARO, we were absolutely gung-ho, and committed to the fact that we needed to include that equipment in our program. And when we contacted the company, they decided that they wanted to work with us,

Gregory Washington (29:56):

Of course, 'cause they just ensured that they're gonna be able to sell systems for the foreseeable future to all of our graduates, is a huge deal for them.

Mary Ellen O’Toole (30:06):

It’s a huge deal. And what they did was they decided to make us the only university in the United States with a FARO lab. And they donated hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of equipment to us to help with students. So our students are learning on state-of-the-art equipment. We take this equipment out to the Body Farm and we can measure the Body Farm with this equipment. And we've actually got two CSI people and now two other people, a total of four people within the forensic program who have been specially trained so that they can provide courses to students. And once the semester is finished, students who take the FARO course are now certified. That means they can go into court when they're working for Arlington Police Department or the FBI or Fairfax County Police Department and be qualified as an expert witness. And when cross examined about what is your expertise? I'm certified on FARO, which is the state of the art. Mason does that.

Gregory Washington (31:05):

That's really cool. And they have it upon graduation. Yes. I hope all of you out there who are listening to this podcast catch that one. Let me ask you, let me ask you this. We're an education institution, but one thing that I know happens is that our faculty and our programs extend beyond the traditional college age students. Right? We have individuals in their seventies here and individuals in their eighties. So talk a little bit about individuals in the FBI or law enforcement or any of those organizations. Do you have those individuals come to Mason to get trained in the science of forensics?

Mary Ellen O’Toole (31:45):

What we have is a faculty that is made up of retired FBI agents and FBI scientists and people that have worked in law enforcement and then brought their expertise here to work as college professors. So we know forensic science is an applied science. And so we hire people that have that hands-on experience because they worked in the field. And then we are collaborating with departments like the FBI, especially in areas that are very unique to the FBI like the Body Farm and Canines, the Body Farm and cadaver dogs. And we're collaborating with other police departments, so that what our research does is demonstrate that we have based it on real life crime scenes. So it's more from a collaborative point of view. But recently I had a group of FBI profilers come out to the Body Farm. In a couple weeks we'll have FBI laboratory folks come out to the Body Farm and we will provide them a day of training. We'll have the military come out, we'll provide them with training. So we're trying to be, and we've been pretty successful at being as collaborative as we can because we are as strong as our ability to collaborate. We are as strong as our ability to bring in all this outside expertise to further the mission of the program, to further the education of our students. And just to improve the whole concept of collaboration is where it's at when it comes to forensics,

Gregory Washington (33:12):

Doing work with animals, dogs, any other animals that can be domesticated and used in forensic science?

Mary Ellen O’Toole (33:20):

Right now it's just with the cadaver dogs. And that's almost a full-time endeavor. Here's why I say that. We know that dogs can find human remains. We know that dogs can find people that are missing but not deceased. The problem is we really don't know what the dog is smelling. So we know that they have the ability to smell something that a human nose can't even come close to. We know that, but we don't know what the animals picking up on. What is it that enables them to distinguish between, say, the smell of human decomp from pig decomp? That's important because oftentimes we find bodies because the cadaver dog finds them for us. And then the dog handler has to go to court and testify that their dog found it. And they're always asked, well, what's the dog smelling? And the science is not there yet. So we are working on that. That's critical. So if I gave you a rose and I gave you a lily, and I said smell, both of them, you would say they both smell like flowers, but they both smell differently. But you wouldn't be able to tell me why one smells like a rose and one smells like a lily. So we know that the science behind the, the use of cadaver dogs is awesome. We just need to explain it from a scientific perspective.

Gregory Washington (34:47):

So we like to say at Mason that one of our pillars is audacity. That is, we are on the relentless quest for knowledge that can change the world. And I think this program, your program, fits this mode perfectly. So in that context, what are students who go through this program, who participate in the research, in the training lab, what can they expect relative to a career? We obviously know they can be in a forensic scientist, but what else can they look forward to?

Mary Ellen O’Toole (35:19):

They certainly can look forward to careers that present challenges in terms of a high bar for creativity, a high bar for critical thinking, a high bar for tenacity, a high bar for compassion and empathy for other people. Because when you work in the forensic field, you realize that you have to bring those personality traits to the job. You have to have that ability to be creative and to be very curious. And then at the same time, you have to be compassionate because you may be dealing with the victim's family, you may be dealing with the offender, who knows they're going to spend the rest of their life in prison. So it's really an eclectic combination of traits that students really develop knowing that all of that is gonna be necessary if they want to be really well-rounded in the job. And I love the term audacity, because being audacious is not the same as being arrogant. Being audacious is to stand up and say, we've got thousands of unidentified remains in medical examiner's offices throughout the United States. What can we do to reunite those individuals with their family members? We know that we've got unsolved cases out there of marginalized victims throughout the United States. Audacious means what can we do to solve those crimes? And so if my students can be as audacious as is humanly possible, they're gonna be magnificent forensic scientists.

Gregory Washington (36:54):

Wow, that's really cool. I hear there are different kind of research going on in the lab with bees. Can you talk a little bit about what's going on with bees?

Mary Ellen O’Toole (37:02):

So bees, the honeybees, are our little winged crime fighters. That's what I call them. They're little winged crime fighters. We have bees already out there at the body farm. They've already been placed out there by our university entomologist. And we've already had our university botanists plant flowers out there that would attract honeybees. And the theory behind it is based on the fact that honeybees, when used in other research, were able to deposit their pollen in a way that researchers could detect the presence of pesticides. So we're using that same science to basically say, okay, honeybees, we're gonna have a human donors out there. You will fly to the plant, the volatile compounds will be in the plants from the decomp, they will be in the plants. You will go to the plant and then fly back to your beehive and take the pollen and deposit it in your beehive.

Mary Ellen O’Toole (37:59):

And from that, we're hoping that we can detect the presence of human decomposition. And the reason that that's important is that oftentimes when you're looking for a body, somebody that's been murdered, you may be facing, you know, 10 miles of an area that you have to search. That's nearly impossible to do that effectively. So if we can narrow the area by looking at the bee activity in the area, and there and there are bee farmers all over the United States, if we could test their beehives and see if there's any evidence of human decomp in their beehives, we would be able to say there is likely a human body within two to five miles of this beehive.

Gregory Washington (38:40):

That is pretty interesting. And that includes underground as well?

Mary Ellen O’Toole (38:45):

We don't know the answer to the underground, and that's what we are attempting to determine, 'cause our first science experiment will be with a buried human donor.

Gregory Washington (38:54):

So last question. In all the time you spent as a profiler, what did you learn about the criminal mind?

Mary Ellen O’Toole (39:01):

I love that question. I think the one takeaway that I learned over and over and over again is that the people that I worked on, the cases that I worked on, serial sexual murders and kidnappings and robberies and burglaries, very violent crimes, people did not snap and just go from one day being law abiding, compassionate, and kind to a criminal. I learned that violence starts in the brain. And what I mean by that is people start thinking about it, people start planning for it. People start to develop ideas and outlooks on life that enable it, enable them to commit a violent crime. And I see this as being really critical when we have a mass shooting. We oftentimes hear people weighing in on these mass shootings, not unlike the one we just had the other day at the University of Las Vegas, where people say mental illness or he just snapped. My experience has been that's not the case at all.

Gregory Washington (39:59):

That, that that people don't just snap. They've been moving in that direction for some time. So that means that it's probably preventable.

Mary Ellen O’Toole (40:06):

That means a lot of this is preventable. Some behavior, like with psychopathy, we know as a genetic dose to it, we know that, the science tells us that. Nonetheless, there's a pattern of behavior that develops over time. And that period of time where there's the possibility to really influence and change for the better a person's life is before they reach their mid twenties. Because after that, your brain is hardwired and your personality is hardwired. And to expect change after that is really actually pretty naive. So if there's opportunity to really influence someone that's manifesting indicators of problems that could get worse and worse, intervention has to be at an early age.

Gregory Washington (41:02):

Well, we'll have to end it there. Thank you. Mary Ellen O'Toole, director of the Forensic Science Program in George Mason University's College of Science for a most interesting and fascinating discussion.

Mary Ellen O’Toole (41:16):

Thank you for having me.

Gregory Washington (41:17):

I am Mason President Gregory Washington saying, until next time, stay safe, Mason Nation.

Narrator (41:25):

If you like what you heard on this podcast, go to podcast.gmu.edu for more of Gregory Washington's conversations with the thought leaders, experts, and educators who take on the grand challenges facing our students, graduates, and higher education. That's podcast.gmu.edu.