A Baylor University anthropology professor enlisted the help of students in a project to exhume pauper, unknown immigrants’ graves and attempt to identify the deceased.
Lori Baker has spent the past decade examining the remains of immigrants thought to have died crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.
Her mission is to use DNA analysis to identify the bodies and give closure to families wondering about the fate of their loved ones.
In May, she turned her sights to pauper cemeteries in Del Rio, near the Texas-Mexico border, eyeing unmarked and unidentified immigrants’ graves.
She and Baylor forensic science lecturer Jim Huggins recruited 18 undergraduate students for an 11-day field school to exhume bodies and prep the remains for DNA analysis.
While all anthropology students have to complete a field school project to graduate, unearthing burials and examining the remains is a first for Baylor, and Baker said no other universities are involved in identifying immigrants’ bodies.
Undergraduates performing such work also is unheard of, she said.
“We have a lot of students that are interested in (studying) humans that have had to go and excavate snails,” Baker said, laughing. “But that’s not as much of a skill-builder.”
Forensic anthropology junior Jen Husak, 20, said the trip helped reinforce her interest in pursuing a forensics career.
“It’s almost like working a crime scene, and that’s what I want to do,” Husak said, adding that her initial interest in the field came from watching shows like “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.”
“So to be able to learn the proper techniques and how to handle everything and do it correctly, it was a huge, huge thing for me,” she said.
The group brought back the remains of six people. The skeletons are stored at Baylor awaiting in-depth DNA analysis by Baker. Graduate students at the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State University also did some work processing the remains when the group first returned to Texas.
“These are somebody’s child, somebody’s parent. This is an effort to repatriate them back to their countries and back to their families,” Huggins said. “So, (we’re) able to do something that’s worthwhile and good, and train your future anthropologists and forensic scientists who are going to be working out in the field.”
Each morning of the trip, the students split into teams of four or five and started searching for graves, targeting more recent burials.
The groups dug for six to eight hours, taking care to measure, photograph and document all of their actions in the field.
Husak said it took her group two or three days to completely exhume a grave. They discovered the remains of two small children buried there in separate coffins in an adult-sized cemetery plot.
“Everyone else was pulling out body bags of full skeletons, and we had these two babies and we didn’t really know what to do,” Husak said. “We took little paint brushes and little skewers to try and knock the dirt away and get bones as loose as we could before we were able to pull them out, so that we wouldn’t break anything because they were so fragile.”
Once the trip wrapped, the students filled out case journals documenting their steps and findings during the exhumations.
After the remains were processed at Texas State, the students met in labs at Baylor and began preliminary forensic exams. They pieced together as much of each skeleton as possible, then made loose determinations about height, gender and origin.
Baker said she will review the students’ notes but conduct her own analysis of each set of remains before prepping them for DNA testing.
A bone sample the size of a kernel of corn is all that is needed for DNA analysis. Baker said it takes about 350 hours to run a full mitochondrial DNA analysis on the bones.
Once she has completed her testing, she will send samples from each body to the University of North Texas, which operates the Center for Human Identification, a federally funded missing persons database, for its own testing.
Baker also plans to enter the results into a missing persons database she helped the Mexican government set up in 2005 during a project to identify Mexican immigrants thought to have died in the desert after crossing into Arizona.
It could be more than a year before any progress is made on identifying the six remains from Del Rio. Baker estimated that she has worked on about 250 cases during the past decade, and matches have been made in about 70 of them.
“When family members get news that it’s not their loved one, they get real excited . . . until the next day when they call you back and they say, ‘Well, what does that mean?’ ” Baker said.
“It means they don’t have an answer as to what happened, and whoever they’re looking for is still out there. That ends up being just as devastating as giving them the news that the person has been ID’d.”
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