UIndy forensic crew lends hand in Texas migrant crisis

 

UIndy-forensics-(5)The work was often grim, dirty, and hot, but UIndy forensic anthropologist Krista Latham and four graduate students put their skills to the test in May on a weeklong humanitarian mission in Texas, helping to bring closure to grieving families. Undocumented migrants seeking opportunity in the United States are turning up dead in increasing numbers in southern border areas. One hotspot is rural Brooks County, Texas, about 60 miles from the Mexican border, where a reported 129 bodies or sets of skeletal remains—many still unidentified—were found in 2012 alone.

“That’s where people are running out of water, running out of food,” said Latham, an assistant professor teaching in UIndy’s Departments of Biology and Anthropology. “A lot of them are women and children who are just coming here for a better life.”

Latham, who directs UIndy’s Molecular Anthropology Laboratory and also works on human-remains cases in UIndy’s Archeology & Forensics Laboratory, has more than 10 years of experience in locating burial sites, exhuming graves, and analyzing skeletal remains to determine sex, age, height, and other factors that can assist in identification. She and her uniquely qualified students were called to southern Texas by Baylor associate professor Lori Baker, who has been involved in the issue for a decade.

Reuniting families

Baker is director of Reuniting Families, a nonprofit program that coordinates with authorities on both sides of the border to identify and repatriate the remains. The all-volunteer effort is necessitated by the fact that the communities where bodies are found typically lack the manpower, expertise, and funding to handle the growing number of cases. As the ranchers near Falfurrias, Texas, continue finding remains on their property, the town’s small cemetery is filling with fresh graves of unidentified victims. The location suggests that the migrants, left to their own devices by the smugglers paid to deliver them safely, are actually trying to reach a nearby U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint and be sent back home rather than die in the countryside.

“It’s pure desperation,” Latham says. “They’re succumbing to the elements.”

She was joined on the trip by four students pursuing Master of Science degrees in Human Biology: Jessica Campbell, LaFarge, Wis.; Erica Christensen, Indianapolis; Justin Maiers, Lapeer, Mich.; and Ryan Strand, Irving, Texas. In seven days—amid snakes, scorpions, desperate relatives of the missing, and ever-present news cameras—they exhumed 63 graves, some containing remnants of multiple individuals. The remains are being cleaned and stored in Texas while awaiting skeletal analysis and DNA sampling, some of which will take place at UIndy. Their labors in the Texas heat and humidity, sometimes wearing head-to-toe protective gear, were challenging physically and emotionally, Latham said. But the opportunity for the students to experience such an effort firsthand and make a valuable contribution to society was not to be missed.

“This is a dream project,” Strand said. “We can directly apply our skills to help people in need.”

During the mission, the UIndy team members were treated to dinner at a private ranch and at the home of the local constable, who presented them with certificates of appreciation. “I was shocked by how much we were embraced by the local community,” Maiers said. “They were all so very grateful that we were there to help.” The following week, the crew made presentations at a professional conference in Las Vegas. Latham plans to return in the future, with student teams, to Brooks County and similarly affected communities to conduct further exhumations and analyze remains.“I see this as a long-term mission,” she says. “It’s a crisis at this point, and I think it’s going to get worse.”

Busy year

Latham, who leads an organization in which UIndy students learn about the forensic sciences and make presentations at schools and museums, also made news with work on high-profile cases:
—She led analysis of skeletal remains found in April in a remote area of Brown County, soon identified as a 26-year-old reported missing in 2010.
—She provided analysis and testimony last fall in a murder trial in what may be the oldest cold case to be solved in U.S. history, in which a man was convicted in the abduction and death of a seven-year-old in 1957.
—She still hopes to tackle a great mystery that eluded her this year: whether assassin John Wilkes Booth died on being captured in 1865 or escaped to start a new life, as some believe. She’s agreed to analyze DNA from bones of the recovered body, but the Army so far has declined to release samples from a display in a Washington, D.C., medical museum.

Contact: Krista Latham, Assistant Professor, Biology & Anthropology, at 317-788-2060, lathamke@uindy.edu

Click through the photo gallery below to see more from UIndy’s time in Brooks County, Texas.

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