Yellowstone County sheriff's detective Shane Bancroft recently spent days surrounded by dozens of decaying corpses, and he couldn't be happier about it.
"I've never experienced anything like it in my whole life," said Bancroft. "It was neat."
Bancroft returned to Billings last month after spending 10 weeks at the National Forensic Academy, a research and law enforcement education program in Knoxville, Tenn.
While there, Bancroft learned how to find hidden graves, carefully dig up bodies and identify the stages of decomposition.
Other topics on the curriculum included blowing up a minivan and sorting through the debris in order to reassemble the explosive device.
Bancroft also learned how to reconstruct shootings, collect trace evidence and measure blood spatter.
Bancroft and 23 other law enforcement professionals from around the country were part of the 31st class offered at one of the premier education and research programs into the disciplines of death, destruction and forensics.
The program, which began in the early 1980s, is affiliated with the University of Tennessee and the U.S. Department of Justice. It is probably best known for the 1.3-acre plot of land known as the "body farm," a wooded area along the Tennessee River near the university medical center.
It is here that anthropologists and criminal investigators like Bancroft study the macabre science of human decomposition.
Bancroft and his classmates spent several days at the body farm. Their first task was to locate a specific "clandestine grave" among the many other buried, partially buried or above-ground human bodies scattered throughout the area.
"We had to document how we found it, and then once we thought we were on the right path we gridded it off and then took two full days to excavate the set of remains," Bancroft said.
The bodies at the facility are donated by the individual or their families for scientific research. The facility receives nearly 150 donated bodies a year, and the outdoor research area has about that many spread out for study at any one time.
"It's out in the woods intentionally to see how things happen in a natural setting," he said.
For Bancroft, a 14-year veteran of the sheriff's office, the experience was exhilarating.
"Surreal," he said of his time at the body farm, "Overwhelmingly interesting and fascinating, but surreal is the best way I can describe it."
Bancroft, who was assigned to the sheriff's detective division two years ago, said he has already started applying the techniques taught at the school to unsolved crimes and cold-case murders in the Billings area.
"I'm already conducting forensic tests on evidence from old cases and some new cases that I never knew how to do before," he said.
Bancroft said he will share the information he brought back from the school with other deputies as the opportunity arises.
The academy came to the attention of Bancroft about seven years ago while he was serving as a deputy county coroner. In 2006, two Billings detectives became the first Montana police officers to attend the academy.
"From that point on I wanted to go," Bancroft said.
But it wasn't until Bancroft was assigned to the sheriff's detective division about two years ago that he began to seriously make plans. Shortly after joining detectives, Bancroft filled out the academy application. He was accepted, he said, and placed on an 18-month waiting list.
In the meantime, Bancroft approached Sheriff Mike Linder, who delivered bad news. While the sheriff supported Bancroft's proposal, there wasn't enough money in the budget to cover the $7,500 tuition and other expenses.
"So that was it," Bancroft said. "I went to local businesses and service groups and individuals and solicited donations. It took 14 or 15 months to raise all the money."
Bancroft said he is grateful for the donations, which amount to about $11,000, and he hopes to put his new knowledge to work for the benefit of the community.
"I'm proud of the results," Bancroft said. "I was named class leader and spoke at the graduation. Their donations did not go to waste on me. It was an amazing experience and I am so much better prepared for a major crime scene that I was before."