Police dig up clues to crimes with plants at Bell Museum

The museum has helped numerous law enforcement agencies with investigations.

Jerret Raffety

The Bell Museum of Natural History uses plants for more than its wide variety of exhibits.

Anita Cholewa, a curator of plants at the museum, said the collections of plant research are helping criminal investigators solve crimes.

The museum’s collection of plants is derived of exhibits and research. Law enforcement occasionally uses the research collection to learn about a plant involved in a crime, she said.

Cholewa said that she and another curator have helped fulfill investigators’ requests for information approximately once a year.

“(Investigators) can’t have experts on every possible science,” Cholewa said.

The museum has worked with numerous law enforcement agencies such as the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, the FBI and several county attorneys across Minnesota.

“This collection is a reference material against which unknowns can be compared, just like the FBI’s fingerprint database,” Cholewa said.

She said that museum employees have helped the law enforcement agencies for the last 15 years.

Plant materials can be used for several investigations but are most commonly used to prove where a crime happened, Cholewa said.

During a murder investigation years ago, Cholewa said, investigators studied when the crime occurred by collecting plants found under the body.

By studying the maturity of the plants underneath the corpse, investigators had a better idea of approximately when the murder occurred.

Susan Lasley, the assistant director of communications for the state Department of Public Safety, said the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension occasionally uses outside agencies for investigations.

She declined to say whether the museum was involved in a current investigation.

Christopher Goodwin, the museum’s interpretive programs coordinator, said Minnesota children will learn more about plants’ physical characteristics and anatomy, which the museum’s botanists use with law enforcement agencies, this July and August.

The weeklong program is part of the Summer Discovery Day Camp held each year on campus, he said.

Children ages 11 and 12 will solve crimes using botany, mammalogy, tooth formulas, entomology, soil categories and paleontology.

“The children are learning science accidentally while trying to solve a mystery,” Goodwin said. “No one would sign up for a flat-out botany class, but it all becomes more interesting when the kids can be detectives.”

The children receive a series of lessons from experts in the fields from around the East Bank, West Bank and St. Paul campuses. University police also teach investigation methods, he said.