Immigrant ID Investigation Pt. 2

Local News

There’s an effort in Brooks County to keep immigrants from dying as they cross into the United States illegally. This year, more than 50 bodies have been found in the county. They’ve been buried at the Sacred Heart Cemetery, where soon they’ll be exhumed by staff from Texas State University, who will try to identify them.

News Center 23’s Jose Saenz takes us to the labs of Texas State University where the remains of over 100 migrants are being analyzed and are waiting to get to their final destination. Some of the footage you’re about to see may be graphic for some.

Inside Freeman Ranch in San Marcos stands a laboratory that’s housing nearly 200 remains of migrants who died after crossing in to the United States illegally. These bodies were exhumed in 2013. Almost 200 miles south of the lab, as part of a service project known as ‘Operation Identification.’ 

They were brought all the way out here for identification since they were buried without any DNA samples taken from them or proper autopsies.

Dr. Kate Spradley, Forensic Anthropologist says, “We build a biological profile. We start by estimating sex, and then how old they were, how tall they were, and then where in the world they come from. Are their characteristics from someone that comes from Mexico or Central America… and then we try to cross reference that information with information provided to us from non-governmental organizations and sometimes governmental organizations in the form of missing person reports… and then we try to use DNA to make identifications.”

Before Dr. Spradley and her staff are able to do any analyzing, the remains of the migrants must be cleaned up. Between 20 and 30 volunteers help remove any tissue off the bodies. Aside from that, they also take the time to wash the clothes the migrants were wearing when their bodies were found.

Chloe McDaneld, Recent Graduate said, “I try to get undergrad and graduate students to come wash, then after they’ve been washed and dried, we also take photos of the clothes and take notes as well… and then those photos are eventually uploaded to NAMUS where family members can search the clothing if they recognize anything,  that can maybe bring up an ID hypothesis.”

Before washing any clothes, Chloe and the volunteers make sure to look for ID’s or any personal  items that can give the forensic anthropologists and idea of who the person was.

Timothy Gocha, Forensic Anthropologist, “This case right here, we have this hand drawing that looks like a child’s drawing. There’s a name on it, and that name, we were able to look through missing persons information and find a missing person’s report… and then we contacted the family and asked if their loved one by any chance wore dentures, because in this the person was what we call an edentulous, which is a person with no teeth. The family confirmed that their loved one went missing around the time the remains were found, and that they did wear dentures. So we consider this to be a very strong identification hypothesis, and we’re just waiting on the DNA results.”

Even though the personal items may not always help identify the body, they can still go a long way.

Timothy Gocha, “The bones is not how you recognize your loved one. The personal items may lead to an identification and sometimes they may not have nothing to do with the identification, but they really help with the closure for the family. That’s how they come to grips with the fact that the remains in front of them are in fact their loved one.

Since ‘Operation Identification’ first began three years ago, Texas State University has received the remains of nearly 200 migrants. 18 of them have been successfully identified. Dr. Spradley says even though the process of identifying the bodies has sped up a bit, they still encounter several barriers.

Dr. Kate Spradley, “People who are missing somebody that are living in Latin America, they can’t get a missing persons report into our federal system, in the United States. I’m required by law to submit a DNA sample to the University of North Texas, and that DNA sample goes into our federal data base. Families in Mexico and central America can’t get that missing person’s information into the data base, and that’s a big road block, because without the information of the missing person, it becomes difficult to figure out who these individuals are”

Once Dr. Spradley and her staff make an identification, she say’s they’re still far from done with the job.

Dr. Kate Spradley, “We have to write an identification report, we have to get signatures, there’s family notifications that have to be done, so that’s a very long process too. The process doesn’t end when you make an identification. It’s beginning at that point. It’s like a second beginning of the process. So we desperately need to keep the staff we have and to get a few more people on board.”

Dr. Spradley is working on getting additional grants for the project, since the previous ones she received will run out in March. She says she’s glad she can use her skill set to help others, and that she would want people helping her too, if her loved one was also missing. 

Dr. Spradley added, “If one of my loved ones ever walked out the door and I never saw them again, and I never knew what happened to them., that would have to be the worst feeling in the world. I think about, if my daughter ever went missing, or if my daughter was traveling in a foreign country or here in the United States, and went missing, I would want people to be doing the same thing.”

Dr. Spradley and her staff will be returning to the Sacred Heart Cemetery in January to exhume more bodies and take them back to the lab.

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The mission of is to provide real-time delivery of the untold local stories about people living, working and migrating along the U.S. border with Mexico. The information is gathered by experienced and trusted Nexstar Media Group journalists hired specifically to cover the border.

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