TROY’s budding forensics program put to use in remains search in Pike County

Students will have the opportunity to enroll in an introductory forensic sciences class in Fall 2022.

Students will have the opportunity to enroll in an introductory forensic sciences class in Fall 2022.

A Troy University professor and two students in the budding forensic sciences program were recently called on to assist the Pike County Sheriff’s Department in the search for the remains of a 2012 murder victim believed to be buried in southern Pike County. The first course for the program was approved just six days after their visit to the site.

On Thursday, April 7, the Pike County Sheriff’s Office in conjunction with the Alabama State Bureau of Investigation and the St. Petersburg Police Department in Florida began searching for the remains of the 17-year-old victim.

After an initial search was unsuccessful, the sheriff’s office called on the Anthropology, Sociology and Criminology department at TROY for aid after a tip from the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences.

“By the time we got there, they had already searched a pretty significant area, so they really wanted some confirmation that we didn’t see any other sites in the area that looked promising,” said Dr. Angela Dautartas, assistant professor of anthropology in the College of Arts and Sciences. “It did not seem like investigators were given accurate information, but it’s not unheard of that someone’s recollection could be off a little bit after a 10-year span. We performed a surface scan and also did some soil probing and a shovel-test pit, basically looking for any indicators in the soil that might have told us that it was an area that had previously been disturbed.”

Professor Dr. Angela Dautartas assists student Ryan Joyner with sectioning off a plot of land to survey in a forensic anthropology simulation
Dr. Angela Dautartas and anthropology student Ryan Joyner practice sectioning off plots of land to analyze.

Ashlyn Diamond, a graduate student studying social science with a concentration on anthropology from Tallassee, Alabama, and Ryan Joyner, a senior anthropology major from Panama City, Florida, assisted in the field work.

“It was interesting to see how we can apply the concepts we learn in the classroom to a real-world situation and then put those efforts into helping law enforcement and bringing closure to families,” Joyner said.

Diamond, who also earned her bachelor’s degree in anthropology from TROY, said the experience of being on an official site allowed her to see the professional side of the job, not just the technical.

“Watching (Dr. Dautartas) communicate with the law enforcement officials and making those connections…it was very interesting to see the other side of what forensic anthropologists and archaeologists do,” she said. “It’s a good thing to have under your belt when it comes to furthering your career.”

Dautartas joined the University in the fall of 2020 and set to work on getting an introductory course approved with the goal of eventually morphing into an interdisciplinary minor in forensic sciences. The first course, Introduction to Forensic Sciences, was approved on April 13 and is now accepting students for the Fall 2022 semester.

“This is a broad introduction to forensic sciences. It will cover all the different specialties that fall under that umbrella, or at least introduce students to them,” she said. “At a minimum, we’ll talk about forensic anthropology, forensic entomology, toxicology, which is also referred to as forensic chemistry, forensic dentistry, psychology and forensic nursing.

“There’s already two very good programs here now for those interested in becoming law enforcement through our criminology program or entering into forensic sciences via our excellent digital forensics minor and certification program that are both well-established at TROY. But for the lab-based work, that’s what we don’t have a curriculum established for.”

The next step in turning one class into a full field of study is gauging student interest, but Dautartas is hopeful they’ll be successful and can have one more area of study to offer current and potential students.

“It’s really interesting to have this potentially be offered as a course of study here, and unfortunately would be beneficial in in times like this to have a university to help with this kind of thing,” she said. “I think that would potentially be a big draw for students to come here because there aren’t a lot of other programs in the state that have this at the undergraduate level, and it gives our students another pathway to a broader array of career options.”

This is the first time the department has been asked to assist with a recovery, and Dautartas said she wants other agencies to be aware of the services they offer.

“The Pike County Sheriff’s Department was excellent to work with. We really appreciated how supportive they were, and it was really nice to get a chance to work alongside of them,” she said. “Hopefully now that they know that we’re here and we’re doing this as a public service, they’ll be more ready to call us in the future. We’re here to help.”