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CREATIVE THOUGHT AT WORK Unearthing ugly truths

Helping others, even if it means dig- ging through a grisly crime for essential details, is what Rebekah Baranoff ’05 considers her obligation as a member of society. On any given day, she could be working a scene straight out of televi- sion’s CSI. And she loves it. But it wasn’t always so. “For the long - est time I never knew what my purpose was,” she says. “I was never the kid who wanted to grow up to be a doctor or an artist or a chef or a teacher.” The anthro- pology major and Spanish minor says her life was “a winding path with multi- ple dead ends.” But she eventually hit upon something that clicked for her, and now she is a crime-scene technician for the police department of Chandler, Ariz., a suburb of Phoenix.

At Skidmore, Baranoff found cultural anthropology too theoretical (she pre- ferred “being out in the field and doing things with my hands”), so she focused on archaeology and biological anthropol- ogy. While taking a human osteology lab with Professor Sue Bender, she “fell in love with bones,” she says. That set her on course to pursue a master’s in forensic anthropology at Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pa. The program had connections with local authorities as well as the Buffa- lo, N.Y., Medical Examiner’s Office, which made it possible for Baranoff to gain experience in human identification at actual crime scenes. She was sent throughout the tri-state area of Penn- sylvania, Ohio, and New York to investigate cases with buried and highly


ogy—photography, documentation, map- ping techniques—to her forensic work. Driving a van full of specialized equipment, Baranoff provides technical support to officers at crime scenes that may involve anything from burglaries and rapes to shootings and vehicle crash- es. She collects both physical evidence (guns, clothing, bullet casings, shoe prints) and biological evidence (blood, urine, semen, saliva). She is sometimes called into court to testify about her findings.



decomposed bodies, skeletal remains, child-abuse victims, and more. In grad school and in her current work, Baranoff’s background in archaeol- ogy has been “supremely useful,” she says. Investigating a crime scene is not so different from conducting an archaeologi- cal dig. Both involve “excavating the site for evidence to determine what happened and who was present.” And she applies the same skills she learned from archaeol-


Her most memorable case came when she was in grad school. In February 2009 Continental/Colgan Air flight 3407 was heading from Newark, N.J., to Buffalo, N.Y., in wintry weather. During its final approach for landing, a series of mis- steps by the crew caused

the plane to crash into a home. All 49 people aboard were killed, as was an oc- cupant of the house.

Baranoff was among the Mercyhurst grad students called to the scene to work with the FBI, National Transportation Safety Board, and other authorities. Sift- ing through the wreckage was backbreak- ing work, she says—and unforgettable. Besides retrieving plane parts and per- sonal effects, the team excavated nearly

intact bodies “still buckled into their seats,” as well as “solo body parts, burned bones, and teeth. There was evidence in the immediate area of the crash, across the street, in the trees … it was surreal.” But she adds that it was also “an incredi- ble experience to help the victims’ fami- lies. I’ve never felt such appreciation as I did from that community.” The residents brought hot meals and supplies, and even gave the workers stuffed animals and treats on Valentine’s Day. “At a very dark time, under horrible circumstances, it was comforting and encouraging to feel the community rallying behind us and coming together to overcome this tragedy,” she recalls. She says she doesn’t always feel so welcome, as she’s “usually encountering people on one of the worst days of their lives—whether they’re victims or sus- pects.” She’s had people spit and curse at her. She’s had to collect crime-scene information while surrounded by offi- cers with shields protecting her from a suspected shooter thought to be nearby. She sometimes has to see horrible things. She’s had to take photos of a child killed in an auto crash, with the grieving fami- ly just feet away. Still, she says, “Perhaps seeing the worst is what motivates me to make the best of my own life and enjoy every moment of it.” —MTS



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