Burning house with dead pigs to provide forensics researcher with new insight

A forensics researcher is hoping to gain insight to help authorities solve murder cases and other suspicious deaths when an abandoned house near Barrie is intentionally torched this weekend – with about a dozen dead pigs inside.

Sherah VanLaerhoven, an associate professor in Biological Sciences and the academic chair of the Forensic Sciences program, will participate in a joint training exercise and research experiment with the Ontario Fire Marshall’s Office, the University of Ontario Institute of Technology and the local fire department in Springwater, a small town located just north of Barrie.

Authorities will light the house on fire on Saturday at about 9 a.m. Inside will be about a dozen dead pigs.

Dr. VanLaerhoven, one of only two forensic entomologists in Canada, analyzes how insects colonize dead bodies. Because certain bugs make their homes in bodies at various stages of decomposition, the information she can gather is critical for helping determine time of death.

VanLaerhoven is working on the project with fourth-year student Vince Pacheco. They'll place six dead pigs in the house; three of them will be wrapped in blankets, the others unwrapped. The point of the experiment is to determine whether being wrapped in clothing affects how the colonized insects react to their host being burned.

VanLaerhoven said the information will be useful to have because many criminals return to sites where they’ve disposed of bodies and burn them in hopes of destroying evidence. More insects than you might think remain even after a body is burned, she says: “You’d be really surprised.”

VanLaerhoven said a graduate student researcher from UOIT will also have three to six dead pigs inside the house and will be trying to determine whether accelerants can be recovered from tissue after a body has been burned. The information gained from that experiment could prove useful for future joint arson and murder investigations, she said.

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