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Identifying Deceased Migrants: A Rare Success

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Lorne Matalon

Kate Spradley stands beside a cadaver donated by a U.S. citizen at Texas State University’s Forensic Anthropology Center. Donors want to help advance the study of human decomposition, a science helps in identifying deceased, nameless migrants.

“I was contacted by a colleague at the Colibri Center for Human Rights in Tucson,” she said.

The Center’s investigators work in the office of the Pima County Medical Examiner in Tucson. Colibri accepts Missing Persons reports on lost migrants that U.S. law enforcement routinely won’t.

The Colibri Center was calling Spradley about a 20-year-old El Salvadoran named Oscar.

“Oscar was traveling with a friend,” Spradley said as she recalled the scenario that ultimately led to a rare success.

His family knew that because the friend called Oscar’s relatives in Houston. He told the family Oscar had succumbed to the elements.

“Just exhaustion, probably heat exhaustion and he also hurt his leg,” said Spradley.

“So he had to stay behind. And I can only think of what it’s like to leave somebody behind on a journey like this.”

Before he was abandoned, the companion noticed Oscar was limping.

“And so the companion, he was wearing a brown plaid shirt and took it off and wrapped it around Oscar’s leg to help him walk,” Spradley continued.

“He contacted Oscar’s family and told them where they left Oscar and what he was wearing and about the brown plaid shirt around his knee.”

After that, Oscar was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave. The family wanted to find him, but couldn’t even start the search.

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“Nobody remembered where Oscar was buried,” recalled Spradley.

“So there’s nothing more to do at this point if you don’t know where the body is located.”

A break in came Spradley’s way in May 2013, the year after Oscar died.

Hailey Duecker, the Brooks County Sheriff’s forensic investigator picks up the story – when university anthropologists joined with forensic investigators launched a project to identify long-buried migrants.

“They went into the cemetery to exhume a lot of these unidentified remains. So they could have a proper attempt at identification, mainly skeletal analysis, DNA sampling, proper inventorying of photographs of their personal effects,” said Duecker.

Investigators recovered the bodies of 100 migrants. They didn’t know it but one was Oscar’s. His body was brought to Kate Spradley’s lab.

There it had been cleaned down to the skeleton so a DNA analysis could be made.

Then, says Spradley, the story turned again.

“I was looking at Missing Persons reports one day and I came across Oscar’s Missing Person report,” she recalled.

“And it was the first time I had seen the description of the brown plaid shirt.”

That jogged her memory. Her students had just cleaned a brown plaid shirt wrapped around the knee of an unknown man.

The shirt’s discovery kicked off a chain of events that led to a DNA match.  His family’s DNA was taken by an Argentine forensic team in El Salvador, then brought to the U.S.  And a DNA sample from the skeleton matched DNA from Oscar’s family.

“And he is now waiting to go home. His family has been notified. And he should be repatriated within the month.”

Oscar’s story is a rarity.

“There’s multiple obstacles because right now, family references samples must be collected by U.S. law enforcement,” Spradley said.

“So that’s not going to happen for people in Latin America. People always think, ‘Oh you’ve got DNA technology.’ That’s great. But unless you have something to compare it to, you’ll never get an identification.”

And even if a migrant has family in the U.S., there’s often another challenge.

“People who are here unauthorized, they may not want to go to law enforcement to provide a family reference sample. So the obstacles are many.”

Spradley is undeterred though.

“We have human rights in life and in death. And everybody has the right to be identified and returned to their family. And the family has the right to know what happened to their loved ones.”

Oscar’s relatives told investigators they’re grateful for the bittersweet knowledge of knowing with certainty what happened to him. It is knowledge that many families never receive.

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