The bodies of two more Branch Davidians have been identified, but authorities may have to do DNA testing to identify as many as 50 of the dead cult members.
Justice of the Peace David Pareya of West said the bodies of Rachel Howell, 23, the legal wife of Vernon Howell, and Perry Jones, 64, her father, were identified through dental record comparisons by Tarrant County medical examiners.
The cause of death for Rachel Howell is pending.
Jones died by a gunshot to the mouth, believed to have occurred during the Branch Davidians’ shootout with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms on Feb. 28.
Four ATF agents and six cult members died in the shootout.
Pareya said the identification of the cult members — most of whom died in the April 19 fire that destroyed Mount Carmel, their residence 10 miles east of Waco — is “slowing up.”
Authorities believe between 80 and 96 Branch Davidians died at Mount Carmel.
“The process is very tedious now,” Pareya said. “It’s almost come to a standstill to some degree. It’s not because we don’t want to do the work, but because we have very little to work with. Often, there’s not enough left of the bodies to make a comparison to medical records through traditional means. It’s possible we may have to do DNA testing on between 40 to 50 bodies.”
DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, contains the genetic code that determines an individual’s makeup.
Tarrant County medical examiners were not available for comment, but a spokesman for Gene Screen Inc. of Dallas said DNA testing to determine identity would involve removing skin or bone tissue from a victim, isolating the DNA, and matching it against a DNA sample taken from a suspected relative.
If DNA testing is done, authorities will have to locate the family members of the Branch Davidians, many of whom were from Europe and Australia.
“Think of all the people we would have to contact to get blood samples,” Pareya said. “It’s not something we could do in a week or two. We’re talking months, and we’re just beginning.”
The best results would come if a victim’s DNA was matched against that of a mother or father, sister or brother, said Bob Giles, Gene Screen’s scientific director.
An individual gets 50 percent of his DNA from each parent, he said. Also, 50 percent of an individual’s DNA matches that of his siblings.
“You want a first-degree relative,” Giles said. “Once you get beyond that, the odds of a match are pretty low.”
Through Friday, 42 Branch Davidians have been identified, with 33 names released. Much of the work of getting in touch with relatives of cult members has fallen on Pareya’s office, with assistance from County Judge Jim Lewis’ staff.
The bodies of 19 Branch Davidians have been released for burial, Pareya said, but it appears that quite a number may undergo pauper burials.
“Some of the families have exhibited a lack of interest in burying their relative,” Pareya said. “They feel the victim chose that way of life and they’re not responsible for his or her choice. That’s some of what we’re up against.”