Arizona ranked 3rd in U.S. for unidentified human remains
July 8th 2012 · 14 Comments
Arizona’s border with Mexico has been crossed illegally by thousands of immigrants in recent years, and those dangerous desert treks have earned the state a dubious distinction: the third highest number of unidentified human remains in the country.A federal database tracking such information places Arizona’s open caseload of 1,057 human remains behind only California and New York. Some cases date back several decades.
Government officials say the reason is clear: the high number of those who die attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border through Arizona’s remote deserts.
Such cases, officials said, are harder to solve than what is typical because scorching desert heat makes identification of bodies more difficult and individuals crossing the border often obscure their identities purposely.
Nationally, the number of open cases tops 8,500.
Prior to the 2007 founding of NamUs — the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System database — unidentified remains were not tracked nationally. Now, officials can track the problem of unidentified dead that the National Institute of Justice has called “the nation’s silent mass disaster.”
The database, and developments in technology, give hope to medical examiners, law-enforcement agencies and advocates that names can be placed on so many of the dead. But strapped budgets during lean economic times have stacked cases up.
County officials have developed unique strategies to name the unidentified, but bodies sometimes move quickly through their offices because they need the room.
As reports continue to trickle in from states across the country and agencies realize the power of the database, the number of cases could reach 40,000, said Todd Matthews of the National Institute of Justice.
On average, just 25 percent of cases that are initially unidentified remain so a year later, said Dr. Laura Fulginiti, forensic anthropologist for the Maricopa County Medical Examiner’s Office.
In cases where the desert has mummified remains or left only a skeleton, Fulginiti said, investigators catalog and photograph what they can: possessions, fingerprints, clothing. But if only bones remain, DNA analysis can take years..
Bagging a DNA sample and sending it to the Arizona Department of Public Safety’s DNA lab can feel like a dead end. Bone samples will wait in line with today’s 70 other unidentified samples, 20 of which have been waiting for more than five years, said DPS crime lab Superintendent Vince Figarelli.
DPS proposed legislation in 2006 to create a fund to deal with unidentified cases, but it failed, Figarelli said. As a result, there is no funding to process the cases. One or two trickle through per month outside of the regular DNA profiling for criminal cases that DPS is paid to perform, Figarelli said.
Maricopa County’s situation is not unique. There simply are not enough resources at local agencies to deal with unidentified remains. That has led Dr. Gregory Hess, the Pima County medical examiner, to contract his processing services for unidentified remains to Santa Cruz, Cochise, Graham, Greenlee, Gila, La Paz and Pinal counties.
“The work involved with trying to identify these people is probably the biggest problem,” Hess said. Often, speed is important.
“We need to move the remains on because we’re going to run out of room. We can’t hold them indefinitely. You need to do something with them eventually,” Hess said.
Hess is skeptical that unidentified remains are a “silent mass disaster,” because there was no national database before 2007. However, migrant deaths have definitely increased in the past decade, which has put strain on border counties like Pima, he said.
All of Pima’s unidentified remains since 2010 have been processed, cremated and their ashes interred at a county plot to preserve sparse storage space, Hess said.
Maricopa County buries remains without cremation, hoping that future technologies like innovations in DNA analysis can shed light on unsolved cases.
With the help of a national grant, Maricopa County investigators exhumed decades-old remains of 40 unidentified individuals. In two years, they have identified nine using DNA analysis and a digital dental X-ray gun.
“We don’t do cremation,” said Christen Eggers, a medical investigator working with Fulginiti. “You can never go back. We wouldn’t be able to do the work we’re doing now.”
Lacking the resources and time to process cases, relationships are vital between law enforcement, the Mexican consulate, medical examiners and individuals. Pima County has also reached out to non-governmental organizations with some success.
For example, Tucson-based Derechos Humanos files missing-persons reports for individuals afraid to contact authorities because of their own immigration status. Through close cooperation with the medical examiner, they ask loved ones for detailed information that might match up with an open case. Often, it works.
“We realized we’re in this unique position because people who talk with us may or may not call the police,” said Kat Rodriguez, program director at Derechos Humanos. “Being able to identify some of those remains is huge.”
The existence of NamUs has revolutionized the process, Matthews said, and getting more people involved with the database will help.
“There are many more unidentified remains out there. Until you get all the pieces of the puzzle, you’re not going to put it together,” Matthews said. “NamUs is a native bridge to help connect all these resources to each other.”
Fulginiti said she is “confident that in the next five years we’re going to see an explosion of identifications.”
When examiners can close one of the hundreds of manila case files on their desk, a family finds closure, too.
“The pain that’s caused by a missing person — documented or undocumented — this is an agony that people live with for years and years,” Rodriguez said. “We’re just trying to help the experts get the information they need to hopefully give peace to a family.”
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