Closing Cases by Unearthing the Past
Posted on June 29, 2018 by
Dr. Lesley Gregoricka never knows when the phone will ring, but every single call from the Mobile Police Department represents an opportunity to provide not only a community service but invaluable field experience for her most promising forensic anthropology students.
Gregoricka, a bioarchaeologist and assistant professor of anthropology in the University of South Alabama’s department of sociology, anthropology and social work, serves as co-director of the USA Forensic Science Program. A few months after joining USA in the fall of 2012, she also began offering her expertise pro bono to the Mobile Police Department’s Identification Unit when skeletal remains are discovered. When needed, she also helps other law enforcement agencies in South Alabama.
Lt. Joseph Rose, who leads the Mobile unit, said the infrequent discovery of remains by local residents – often while digging in their own backyards or performing renovations – is aided tremendously by Gregoricka’s specialized skill set, accessibility and enthusiasm.
“What’s great about Lesley is how she likes to explain things to us as we’re going
through the process. We always learn something working with her, and her enthusiasm
is actually quite contagious,” Rose said.
Earning her bachelor’s degree from the University of Notre Dame
and both her master’s and doctoral degrees from Ohio State University, Gregoricka’s academic research utilizes chemical techniques to examine changing patterns of human mobility, funerary practices, diet and social complexity in the Near East and Arabia.
Her volunteer work with local police not only helps keep her fieldwork skills polished
but affords some of her brightest students hands-on, experiential learning unattainable
in a classroom or lab setting.
“The students get so excited, and we are not usually talking about ideal conditions. They’re outdoors sometimes for 12 hours working in the elements, and it is hard work. But they take it in stride, do exactly what’s expected of them in a professional and courteous manner, and I never get tired of seeing their passion for this work play out,” Gregoricka said.
Natalie Smith, an anthropology major, accompanied Gregoricka last year as a junior to a recovery scene in Baldwin County. The semester earlier, Smith had completed a class focused on the human skeleton.
“I was able to use the skills I gained in that class to help identify possible bone fragments at the scene,” she said. “The majority of the potential fragments were small pieces of rock and wood that the officers found while screening through dirt.
It’s amazing how much non-bone can look like bone when you aren’t proficient in bone identification.”
The case was a homicide investigation, and Smith arrived and dressed out in a protective suit, boots and gloves at about 2:30 p.m. She was on the scene seven hours, and left only because she had a class in the morning.
“The experience really cemented in my mind what I am meant to do,” said Smith, who plans to attend graduate school and eventually earn a doctorate in anthropology with a focus on forensics. “There was a sort of satisfaction I had knowing that I was helping family members know what had happened. It can help with closure and, of course, justice.”
While Gregoricka only gets called out to an excavation a few times per year – usually when civilians come across bones in the woods, storm damage exposes remains or even a crawl space excursion takes an unexpected turn – she said every incident provides a learning opportunity.
“Every case is something completely new and has its own unique challenges,” Gregoricka said, noting the students selected to participate in the excavations are pulled from a call-out list and have typically completed either – but preferably both – her forensic anthropology course and the higher level Human Osteology in Archaeology and Forensic Science course.