Skip Ribbon Commands Skip to main content

Spring 2005 - Forestry

Destination Purdue > Spring 2005 - Forestry

Forestry specialist sheds light on murder cases

By Maria Hetzer

In 1994, hundreds of human bones were found in the woods behind an estate near Indianapolis. The Hamilton County Sheriff's Department determined that the bones belonged to seven people who had been burned there. But when they were burned and who they were remained a mystery.

That is when the police called on Bill Chaney, a Purdue University forestry professor. At the crime scene, Chaney noticed that the trees surrounding the fire had stopped growing on one side, the side closest to the fire. By studying the annual rings of a nearby red elm tree, Chaney determined when the fire occured.

This discovery provded the police with a time frame for when the bodies were burned, in turn allowing them to identify the victims as Indianapolis and Lafayette residents. "From an understanding of wood anatomy, I was able to give them a year," said Chaney.

Chaney was able to help because he is a tree physiologist. He has studied the structure and function of trees for 40 years. In this instance, Chaney's tree physiology expertise helped put a murderer behind bars. Since this case, Chaney has occasionally helped identify trees from other crime scenes and investigations.