It was bitterly cold and growing dark—a terrible time to hunt for bones. But when Dr. Hugh Berryman got the call that a child’s skull had been found near Stones River National Battlefield, he knew he couldn’t wait for the luxury of daylight.
Soon, snow would blanket what was looking like a crime scene.
“There was no way of holding that site,” recalls Berryman, a research professor with Middle Tennessee State University’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology. “It’s Friday night; on Monday I’m leaving town for a week; and snow is coming.
I’ve got two days to make this work.”
So he and his Forensic Anthropology Search and Recovery (FASR) Team abandoned their weekend plans and met on site, where detectives from the Rutherford County Sheriff’s Department (RCSD) had secured the wooded area and were waiting nearby with generators and halogen lights.
“Law enforcement doesn’t go under the yellow tape,” Berryman explains. “Our team were the only ones inside. We worked for hours.”
Before dawn, they had collected and photographed a set of remains, later identified as a toddler who had been reported missing from her Smyrna home two years earlier. They had done their job. They couldn’t bring the child back to life, but they could provide some answers and the possibility of justice.
RCSD Detective Ralph Mayercik, who had placed the call to Berryman, says he could have called the department’s own crime scene group, “but we probably wouldn’t have gotten that quick of a response or that level of expertise.”
That’s not surprising, considering Berryman’s reputation as one of the nation’s foremost forensic anthropologists; Berryman recently learned that he will receive the 2012 award for lifetime achievement in physical anthropology from the American Academy for Forensic Sciences. The T. Dale Stewart Award, given annually to a single recipient, is the highest honor bestowed upon a forensic anthropologist in the United States. Venerable institutions, like the Smithsonian, regularly tap his expertise on bones and bone trauma. Since moving to the Nashville area in 2000, he’s made himself available to regional law enforcement and other agencies who deal with death and homicide.
As MTSU Provost Brad Bartel notes, “Hugh Berryman is probably on the speed dial for a lot of counties in middle Tennessee.”
What’s more surprising is the makeup of his FASR team—all MTSU students handpicked by Hugh Berryman, many of them undergraduates.
Crewing the Flagship
Since Berryman joined the MTSU faculty and established FASR in 2006, he and the team have collected and analyzed remains for local law enforcement and fire departments, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, and the State Medical Examiner’s Office in Nashville.