EUREKA — While her classmates dug around a shallow grave Wednesday morning searching for human bones, Eureka College senior April Beck focused intently on a small object she held firmly between forefinger and thumb.
"I am almost positive," Beck began, speaking to no one in particular, "that this is a rock."
She tossed it on a pile of dirt.
Beck was one of 13 students in Dr. Bill Lally's Criminal Justice/Sociology 340 class, Crime Scene Evidence and Documentation, who gathered in a vacant lot near campus Wednesday to dig for human remains. Real human remains. The students dug two graves a few feet apart and about 18 inches deep last week. Lally visited the graves Wednesday morning, deposited a partial human skeleton in each site and covered them with dirt. The challenge to his students was to carefully, deliberately, uncover the remains and examine them as evidence of a crime.
"This is what we talk about and discuss in class," Lally said as his students dug, brushed, charted, measured, photographed and ultimately discovered bones. "There's a big difference between talking about it and coming out here and doing the work."
It was the first time Lally had included an actual forensic exhumation of skeletal remains in his crime scene class. He had some difficulty procuring a human skeleton he believed he needed to add authenticity to the experience. He finally found a company in London that sells bones.
"That turned out to be the easy part. Getting them through customs was even more difficult," Lally said. "UPS wouldn't touch the delivery. Neither would FedEx, DHL. Finally we found out that the good old United States Post Office would make a delivery."
The origin of the skeletons is not precisely known.
"We were told that they are antiques," Lally said.
Wednesday's practice led to some unusual vocal exchanges among the participants.
"Is it a complete person?" Beck asked. "Or some bits and pieces you threw together to make a person?"
"I don't know," Lally lied. "It's what you have to find out."
"Do they have bones over there (at the other site)?" one student asked.
"It's not a race," Lally said.
"I could use a hand," one student said, asking not for help, but for an actual hand.
Student Jamie Hedges attended the National Forensics Academy last summer, where she executed a similar exercise of exhumation of human remains. She was the leader of one of the two groups on Wednesday. She said she didn't really think about the "human" aspect of the evidence the team searched for. There is a job to do. You do it.
"Then you get them out of the ground and you're holding them and it's like, 'Wow this is real,'" she said.
Sophomore Chris Koll stood at the side of the grave containing the remains of the person whom Lally had named, without explanation, Wilhelmina. He held a clipboard that contained graph paper on which he was sketching what was being uncovered in the ground: a spine, a skull, some ribs, a hand. He accidentally dropped his green click pen in the grave.
"So much for crime scene contamination," Lally joked.
Koll knelt down to retrieve his pen.
"Apparently this guy was in the middle of some sort of a project when he died," he said.
The diggers kept digging.
Scott Hilyard can be reached at 686-3244 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at Twitter.com/scotthilyard.