Peer Moore-Jansen prepared for Saturday the way a psychopath might prepare to conceal serial murders.
He buried one skeleton two and a half years ago. He buried the other five a month ago.
He dumped six bodies into those graves one by one, then filled them in, the loose soil from his shovel filling the eye sockets and the open, toothy grins of six skeletal mouths.
They are plastic skeletal mouths. For a college class at Wichita State University.
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But still, there’s a creep factor here.
Welcome to crime scene investigation, Peer Moore-Jansen-style.
Like any ego-driven serial murderer, he long ago gave a name to his handiwork:
A school with shallow graves
Moore-Jansen teaches forensic anthropology at WSU.
Skeleton Acres is the 7.5-acre woodland prairie lab, 10 miles northeast of Leon, where he teaches hands-on crime scene investigation to professional crime detectives, to anthropology students from WSU and to others. Saturday’s challenge, for 24 of his WSU grad students: solve six mock murders.
Before he buried the bodies, Moore-Jansen put coins and papers and wallets and store receipts in their pants and shirt pockets. He carefully placed eyeglasses on some of their skulls, watches on some of their bony wrists, shoes on bony feet, rings on bony fingers.
He gave the dead plastic skeleton with the big eyeglasses a purse, a leather portfolio and an adorned crucifix necklace.
I spend a lot of money at Goodwill stores.
Peer Moore-Jansen, forensic anthropologist
Underwear. Scarves. Shirts. Pants. Dresses. Bracelets. He dressed them all.
He wrote invented stories for each plastic-boned murder victim: who they were, male or female, how they died.
He bought the clothes and jewelry himself.
“I spend a lot of money at Goodwill stores.”
He buried them in shallow graves so that the rain would fall and the dirt would turn muddy and the grass would grow over them.
And the clothes and papers and wristwatches he’d so carefully dressed them in would rot and corrode and stain with age in the rich timberland soil of east-central Butler County.
Real, mock murders
Moore-Jansen brought body bags on Saturday.
He has helped solve several real murders in the last two decades, worked on hundreds of cases, and is highly regarded by Wichita police and detectives throughout the state.
If you want to see some of his work, Google his name along with “Wichita Eagle” and “Club Mexico,” and you’ll see.
“That guy is truly amazing,” said Butler County undersheriff and investigator Tony Wilhite.
Wilhite came to Skeleton Acres on Saturday, along with officers from Sedgwick County, to help coach Moore-Jansen’s students.
“You learn something new every time you work a crime scene, every time you do this training – and you learn something really good every time you spend time with Peer,” Wilhite said.
That guy is truly amazing.
Tony Wilhite, Butler County undersheriff
Digging up Skeleton Acres on Saturday will be the climactic challenge of the students’ fall semester class.
Steve Howe was here with his wife and teammate, Audra. They and their team quickly found a likely grave: dark loose soil surrounded by solid turf covered with prairie grasses. He and his teammates quickly laid out a string survey, then slowly dug in, with shovels at first, then with trowels, which Howe had sharpened that morning with a grinding tool.
They quickly exposed a tuft of what looked like white denim – clothing – an inch below the top of the soil.
At that point, they put down the tools and brushed loose dirt with hands encased in clear latex gloves. C.J. Barringer, another of Howe’s team members, began gently probing the thin wire of a construction site flag into the loose soil near the denim.
“There’s something here. Here. Here,” she said each time the wire hit a buried obstruction.
Bones, probably, Howe said.
Then, using fingers and a paintbrush, they slowly exposed a corner of a pair of big, 1980s-style women’s eyeglasses, staring sightlessly up out of the dark dirt.
Under the glasses: a human skull.
Besides the clothing, Moore-Jansen buried other meticulously thought-out clues.
Right after they found the denim clothing, Howe’s team got excited when they exposed a long, yellowish-white leg bone in the shallow grave.
It was actually touching the skeletal pelvic area.
They stayed excited – until Moore-Jansen deflated them.
Deer bone, he said.
Sometimes, on the grounds where he buried the skeletons, he tosses a few false clues onto the ground. That’s what the deer bone was.
At WSU he has a collection of 125 real human skeletons, and lots of animal bones. (He uses plastic skeletons for his mock murders because he doesn’t want to degrade or break bones in his real skeletons.)
At these mock murder sites every year, he’ll toss a few animal bones on the ground at Skeleton Acres, and watch students work out whether it’s a murder bone … or just a deer leg.
If he says it’s animal bone, we’re done.
Tony Wilhite, Butler County undersheriff
Police detectives in the real world encounter false clues like that all the time, Wilhite said.
Moore-Jansen has saved his department countless hours, Wilhite said, by quickly assessing for them whether a bone they encountered is truly worth investigating.
“Taking it to a lab would take hours,” Whilhite said. “So nowadays, if we find a a bone, we photograph it and send it to Peer. If he says it’s animal bone, we’re done.”
Moore-Jansen grinned as he walked away from the grave.
“They got all excited about that deer bone, as you saw,” he said.
‘Whoa, whoa, WHOA!’
By late morning, the team including Howe, his wife, Audra, Barringer and Claire Weatherall had fully uncovered the eyeglasses and the human skull the glasses were still more or less attached to.
They’d uncovered a skeletal hand, a leather business portfolio, a purse and a necklace with a silver-and-black crucifix. They’d uncovered leg bones and arm bones, still dressed in a white-and-blue top.
And they’d stopped calling the remains “the body.”
They began calling it “she,” or “her.”
That’s why they were all here on Saturday; to learn how to help people by solving mystery murders.
All four said they loved the fun of solving murder mysteries, but all four said they had spliced that interest into “wanting to help people, to put names with faces,” as Barringer put it.
Few people know how much this training means to solving murders, Wilhite said. And few people know how much it bothers crime scene investigators like him when they can’t find enough evidence at crime scenes like this one to solve a case.
It can be heartbreaking, he said.
He has worked for many years, along with other Butler County sheriff’s investigators, to try to solve the case of Adam Hermann, an 11-year-old who disappeared in May 1999 and has never been found.
“It really bothers us that we haven’t yet found that poor kid,” he said.
So this is why crime teams, like the six working at Skeleton Acres, are taught to look almost microscopically at the ground beneath their feet, he said.
Howe was walking around the square of their grid-covered grave, running a metal detector over the ground, while Audra scrapped dirt off bone. When his detector beeped at one location just outside the string grid, he stopped and scraped a trowel across the topsoil.
“Whoa, whoa, WHOA!” he said.
Under his fingertip: an empty .38-caliber shell casing, just six feet from the body.
The student teams over the next few days and weeks will study their skeletons and make a case for telling a story detailed enough to tell in court:
Who was this person? How old? Male or female? Accountant, or mechanic or farmer or what? How did this person end up dead in the ground? Are there fractures in any of the bones? Are there shell casings in the ground?
Was this a traffic accident. A natural death?
Or was it … murder?
Nobody gets judged here if they propose a wrong argument about how the body became deceased, Moore-Jansen said.
“That’s not the point,” he said. “The point is science.
“So if you make a good case, based on science, even if you are on the wrong side of the argument, you get credit for that.”
Most of them get it right, he said.
“But there was one team years ago that got it wrong,” he said.
“They built a story around what they thought,” Moore-Jansen said. “But they totally missed a couple of small details. Such as the small bullet hole in the spine. And the empty bullet shell casing buried in the grave, with a size that happened to perfectly match the size of the bullet hole in the vertebrae.”
“Details,” he said.