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From grave to lab, professor throws science, passion at cold cases

Dr. Erin Kimmerle, center, works with investigators as they examine the remains of an unidentified 1985 female homicide victim after the body was exhumed from a unmarked grave in Tampa, Fla., Sept. 15, 2016. Kimmerle knows locating the killer is a long shot. But if she throws enough science at the case, she feels she may identify the body and find relatives. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

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AP correspondent Tamara Lush first met renowned forensic anthropologist Dr. Erin Kimmerle while reporting on Florida’s Dozier School for Boys – a now-shuttered site where former students accused officials of abuse and dozens of students died. Kimmerle was investigating graves, and local media paid plenty of attention to the positive, bubbly woman with a high-pitched voice – unexpected from someone who jumps in graves and scrubs bones with a toothbrush.

Lush found Kimmerle and her work fascinating – in a state full of colorful characters, she calls the professor one of Florida’s most interesting and brilliant women.

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Dr. Erin Kimmerle, a University of South Florida forensic anthropologist, speaks with reporters after overseeing the exhumations of three unidentified bodies at Maple Hill Cemetery in Hanover Township, Pa., Sept. 26, 2016. – MARK MORAN / CITIZENS VOICE VIA AP

So Lush stayed in touch, and when her sources at the University of South Florida – where Kimmerle teaches and has a lab – offered an exclusive opportunity to follow Kimmerle as she investigated cold cases through a new grant, she jumped at the chance.

Lush followed Kimmerle from an exhumation at a pauper’s grave in Tampa, to the coroner’s office where she assembled skeletons, and to the lab where she got samples ready for testing. Lush watched her teach others how to take raw information and create busts of the cold-case victims. And Lush attended a presentation where Kimmerle spoke about her work on the cold cases – the toughest mysteries of all – and her hopes of finding relatives of the victims.

In the end, Lush had hours of iphone video footage and notebooks full of information on various cases, Kimmerle’s history, and details of the work. She and her editors, though, decided to tell the tale of just one cold case: the woman Kimmerle had dug up from the pauper’s grave. With telling details from each step, Lush takes her readers on the journey of this case: finding the skeleton in a muddy body bag, scrubbing the bones clean using cooking strainers, sawing off femur samples for DNA testing, creating a bust to bring the victim to life after 30 years, and ultimately hoping to identify the young woman and find her relatives.

Lush’s “decision to dig into the emotions, attention to detail and the intensity of the writing make it a really remarkable read.” —Ravi Nessman, news director, South region

Lush’s all-formats Only on AP story gave customers a thrilling read with a twist ending. The story was a top hit on Mobile and Twitter for the day. Vice President for U.S. News Brian Carovillano called the writing evocative and Kimmerle “just a great character,” and said even the cringe-worthy moments made him love the story. Ravi Nessman,news director for the South region,said Lush’s “decision to dig into the emotions,attention to detail and the intensity of the writing make it a really remarkable read.”

For her can’t-put-it-down narrative and an all-formats Only on AP package, Lush wins this week’s $300 Best of the States prize.

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