Heather Burkard was not expecting a whole cow’s head when a local butcher offered her a cow “skull” for her to use in her latent evidence class at Surry Community College’s Elkin Center.
However, that is exactly what she found when she arrived at the shop to pick up the remains with her husband’s pickup.
Burkard laughs and shakes her head, saying, “His idea of a skull and mine are a bit different.”
Burkard’s class trains students to investigate crime scenes and observe the most minute of details others might miss. She has taught the class since the fall semester. following a career in Florida and Charlotte.
Burkard was on the investigative side of the crime scene before turning to education. She saw how crime scene investigations were handled, and now she passes that knowledge on to the future investigators.
As part of their class, students are expected to study and investigate a mock crime scene. Burkard jumped at the chance when she heard of the cow remains, and with the help of a Surry Community College backhoe, three separate holes were dug to act as graves for the remains.
The remains were buried at a site on Surry’s main campus in January, but for security reasons the whereabouts are not allowed to be published. Burkard admits that tampering with a crime scene is a possibility in the real world, but she hopes to minimize the disturbances while the students learn the basic concepts.
Students were split into three groups and allowed to add clothing, spent cartridge casings, cigarettes, and other pieces of fake evidence to make the grave as realistic as possible. The three graves were then filled back in and left for several months to demonstrate decomposition.
When the students returned from Elkin last week, the three groups switched sites to one they had not created and started digging.
One site had a cow’s head buried, another had a second head and assorted bones, and the third had organs and cartilage.
The cold weather this semester has limited the remains’ deterioration, meaning students may open a grave to see a cow smiling back at them. Burkard said one “still had its tongue sticking out” when she received it.
The first day students began by searching for disturbed dirt with a piece of rebar painted blue and hooked in an “L” shape. If dirt had been disturbed the pole would sink into the ground, allowing students to probe and find the edges of the dug holes. If not, the ground would be hard and not allow the pole to bury in.
They then roped off the area and began searching every leaf- literally, every leave - for evidence. Once it was clear of debris the students swept - again, literally swept - the dirt away and began get into the digging.
Tuesday is the third of four days, with Thursday being the final outing. Two of the three groups were still a few feet away from resurrecting their finds and shifted into high gear.
The third struck it rich with a lucky find. The tip of a cow horn, subtle at first like a grayish rock, broke through the surface and brought students from all the groups together to share in the excitement.
The second group began digging deeper around the horn, but Burkard reminded them that if they did not keep the dirt removed evenly the hole would fall back in on itself and make their work pointless.
The first group checked in occasionally on the second’s progress, but the third remained focused on their own site, playing Backstreet Boys on a student’s cell phone.
The students still have a long way to go. The site where the skull first broke through the dirt is the site with assorted bones added in, meaning a large cow skull is still buried and no sign of the bones has been observed.
May 2 is the last day of digging, and only one class period remains after that for the school year.
Burkard said the graves will be refilled following their excavation this year, allowing the remains to further decompose and be unearthed next year by new students. She hopes by then the tough cow hide will have broken down more and bones and teeth will be working loose, adding more realism for the students.
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