Database to aid in identifying remains of Hispanics

Posted by University News Service

Nov. 4, 2010

 The bones of border-crossers who die in the Arizona desert are yielding secrets to their identities, providing breakthroughs in forensic science and help for families searching for missing loved ones.

Dr. Kate Spradley, a forensic anthropologist at Texas State University-San Marcos, is compiling information from the bones into the world’s first database of skeletal characteristics of Latin American individuals. 

Thanks to the database, medical examiners and forensic anthropologists throughout the country will be able to make positive identifications of the skeletal remains of people whose ancestry is Hispanic.  Spradley is assembling the database under a $150,000 grant from the National Institute of Justice, a branch of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Hispanics comprise the United States’ second-largest population group, and Spradley said the database has been needed for a long time. 

“Plenty of data exist to help us identify the skeletal remains of white Americans and African-Americans, but until now no one has systematically collected data on Latin Americans,” she said. Consequently, the remains of Hispanics have often been misidentified as white, or simply left unidentified.  Positive identification leads to solving criminal and missing-persons cases and enables law enforcement to return remains to families of the deceased.

Roughly 400 individuals die each year in the Sonoran Desert of Pima County, AZ—more than in any other place along the U.S.-Mexico border.  Spradley’s research is confirming what authorities have thought, that most of the bodies turning up in the desert are those of migrants from Mexico or Central America.  So far, Spradley has documented the skeletal characteristics of some 500 individuals whose bones were found in the desert.  She plans to document the remains of another 200-300 individuals found there. 

When the remains are discovered, they are taken to the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office, where Spradley measures the crania and bones, and documents other identifying characteristics such as dental features and broken bones that have mended.  Her information is collated with artifacts (money, jewelry, clothing) found with the skeleton, and with missing persons reports and DNA analysis of hair and tissue to make a positive identification. 

In addition to establishing an individual’s ancestry as Hispanic, Spradley’s database can pinpoint its origin to Northern or Southern Mexico or Guatemala.  It can also identify the origin as indigenous or mestizo.   Eventually, Spradley hopes to add data that can identify ancestry as being from many other areas of Latin America and the Caribbean.

If the skeleton is identified as belonging to a person of Hispanic origin, Spradley uploads the skeletal information into an online program used by forensic anthropologists around the country to determine ancestry.  She believes her data will help forensic anthropologists to indentify skeletal remains more quickly, particularly in areas distant from the border. 

“The farther people move from the border,” she said, “the less likely they are to be found with artifacts such as foreign currency or clothing that might have identified them.  My data on geographic origin will help in the identification process when artifacts are missing.”

By shedding light on the dead, Spradley’s database is helping the families of the dead, as well.  Spradley uploads her information additionally into the National Association of Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs), which can be searched by Latin Americans in the U.S. and abroad who are looking for disappeared family members. 

“Our law enforcement agencies don’t investigate cases of missing persons who aren’t U.S. citizens,” she said, explaining the difficulty that non-U.S. citizens encounter when trying to find loved ones who have disappeared in the U.S.   “A person searching NamUs may be able to help in the identification by reading a description of a skeleton and the artifacts found with it and say, yes, that belonged to my relative.  Then we can return the remains to the family, and the family can have closure.”

In November, at a conference in Corpus Christi, TX, on the handling of cold cases, Spradley will speak to Texas Rangers and other law enforcement officials about her work with Pima County and its procedure for handling border-crossing fatalities.  Only two border counties in Texas have medical examiners and, while Texas experiences many fewer border-crossing fatalities than Pima County, Texas law enforcement rarely undertakes to identify the remains before disposing of them.  Spradley will let the officials at the conference know that she is available at no charge to conduct skeletal analyses and to write biological profiles of the skeletons they may find.

“This is my community service,” Spradley said. “They can send me a skeleton, and I can do a report that might lead to someone finding their missing loved one.”