While Sgt. Diane Cockle is only the third female RCMP officer to earn a PhD, the Simon Fraser University graduate’s thesis is the world’s first to comprehensively study the progression of human decomposition at crime scenes.
It’s a subject that falls within the discipline of taphonomy.
Cockle’s morbid research topic stems from her work with the RCMP’s National Forensic Identification Support Services, based in Vancouver. The “death detective” lives in Langley.
“In my role as a forensic anthropologist and death investigator, I need to reconstruct what’s happened to the body from the point of death, to the point of discovery,” says Cockle, who attends the scene of most B.C. murders and found bodies.
“I need to know if the body’s state is the result of the natural processes of decomposition, scavenging, or trauma inflicted at the time of death. People have been convicted of crimes they didn’t do because death investigators, including forensic pathologists, have misdiagnosed the trauma on the body.”
Cockle’s unusual career, and her path to a PhD in forensic anthropology, is a fascinating story.
In 1996, she was working as a provincial archaeologist in Saskatchewan when local police asked for her help in identifying found human remains.
“I started going to crime scenes with them and I liked it,” says Cockle. “I felt my expertise could be used to make a positive impact to identify missing people or assist a homicide investigation.”
So she set out to become an RCMP forensic investigator. She endured an eight-month application process, six-and-a-half months of cadet training, and five years’ service as a general duty cop in small B.C. towns such as Quesnel and Squamish in order to achieve her goal.
Cockle’s interest in pursuing a PhD came out of her work on the infamous missing women forensic investigation at the Pickton pig farm in Port Coquitlam, B.C., more than 10 years ago.
Anthropologists working at the farm crime scene were having trouble seeing possible human bones amidst heaps of mud passing along on conveyor belts, and Cockle was asked to resolve the problem.
She turned to SFU’s archaeology department to obtain human bone samples so that she could find the correct wavelength to fluoresce the bones at the farm.
That successful collaboration sparked her interest in pursuing a PhD in anthropology to complete her credentials.
It wasn’t a quick study, however, as she continued to work full-time and juggle extraordinary job commitments. In the midst of her studies she visited Rwanda three times, serving as a forensic investigator to help substantiate witness accounts of war crimes filed against Canadians who had claimed refugee status.
“The importance of my work in Rwanda is that we were the first country to use forensics to substantiate witness statements,” says Cockle.
During the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake, she served as the disaster-victim identification commander in charge of the field morgue, conducting autopsies to identify victims and repatriate them to their families in Canada. She also travelled to Niger, where she handled the forensic examination of a vehicle used by Al-Qaeda to kidnap two Canadian diplomats.
With so much travel and a large caseload, including a one-year understudy to become a bloodstain-pattern analyst, it’s not surprising that Cockle took eight years to complete her PhD. Eight years, she says, of looking at dead bodies all day at work, and then all night at home as she sifted through 358 RCMP files of homicides or sudden deaths to complete her research.
The payoff, the Langley resident says, is that taphonomy is now a new and useful tool for death investigators.
“For the first time, we can say what’s normal for bodies at crime scenes,” she says.
“I can now say with relative confidence that this body has never been in water, or spent time indoors and then outdoors, or has been dug out of a grave by animals or scavengers.”
She has also developed a new classification system for describing decomposition in the Canadian environment, which is slightly different than in other countries.
This summer, Cockle is teaching taphonomy for the first time at the Canadian Police College in Ottawa to senior crime scene investigators from police agencies across Canada.
“SFU has taught me to challenge my assumptions and ask the questions that everyone else is too scared to ask,” says Cockle.
“For forensic taphonomy, death is only the beginning.”