uncertain journey
transcripts: full vid trasncript

full vid transcript

BOB KEE: 'cause it gets warm in the day but it gets cold at night so during the day sometimes they'll throw their stuff away then at night they get extremely cold.

ROBIN REINEKE: This is the clothing found with 0996 which is the young girl who died in May of '08 who we were comparing to Estephany.

So it's a glittery belt - and this is, you know, why I called the family initially.

I talked to the dad in California, and this is on a Friday, and he showed up here on a Monday.

And he wanted to look through the bodies and to come and identify her. He drove all the way with three of his other family members to come here and they were waiting in my office when I showed up on Monday morning. I was like - I had an apple, and like totally didn't expect them at all.

So we sat down with them and tried to compare - go over the comparison with the woman that I was comparing her to.

And he wanted to see the cranium so badly and Dr. Anderson refused to do that and said something like, 'If this was my daughter - um - this is not the last time that I would want to see her is like this.'

The aunt and uncle that were here with him that day went and looked at the cranium and they really believed that it was her based on the crooked central incisors.

So the entire community like got together and pooled their money, like $500 or $800 dollars for a DNA exam and it turned out not to be her.

Which is, like, sadder - 3 times over because that means that there's another 17-year-old or 16-year-old dead girl that's not Estefany and the family went through all of this and they didn't find their daughter. So we're still looking for her.

SANDRA ANDERSON : Well I can describe today and it was bloody cold! I have been out in the desert when there's - the water that has fallen, and then in summer, gosh, it can be 100 and ten easily.

It's a pretty arduous crossing no matter what season you try to do it in and you just don't know what to plan for, if you're going to suffer from hyperthermia and you're not going to have enough water, or you might suffer from hypothermia and you don't have enough warm things - and you can't carry enough of everything for all the conditions.

In the last year there were remains of over 200 bodies that were found.

There are injuries that can happen, falls, people who come with medical conditions - all kinds of things, every imaginable health problem that people might already have and then you add to it exposure. And they list if possible the cause of death, and often they can only say, exposure.

BRUCE ANDERSON: So the bones and then these shoes were delivered, so my assumption is that the police think that these shoes are related to the bones.

There's an orientation that we we all learn in anatomy where the palms are up, the feet are forward, the head is up - we try to reproduce that somewhat on a table.

Now obviously we can't do it perfectly, if we had a body here the person would be laying face up.

Now we're gonna put this person into our database, we'll put him into the national database called NAMEUS, we'll list male, I haven't done the age yet, we'll do a stature estimate and we'll say he came in with two black tennis shoes. Now a mother missing her son for five years may be looking for anybody that had 2 black tennis shoes on. If we could get the families of every missing person - it's never going to happen - but if you could get all those families looking at NAMEUS there'd be hundreds or thousands of IDs rather quickly 'cause the families would see something amongst, amongst the descriptions of the dead.

It's life history, it is - I mean, anytime we get a skeleton, it's a snapshot - this person's dead, they've stopped growing, so it is a snapshot as far as what I can say. This man's been dead for several years, I don't think he died last summer, so we're probably looking at '07, '06, maybe even longer than that.

And if we never identify him, I'll never know if that's a good estimate, but hopefully we'll identify him.

Who knows how many skeletons are left out there.

Most of these people are on the way to get a job, so sometimes they have documents like birth certificates; the Mexican government actually puts out, I've seen this many times, they put out some kind of a document that says 'I have no felony confections,' so the assumption is whoever this person's going to work for in the States, they require that kind of documentation before you get that job.

That's a scapular card, religious card, those are ubiquitous - that's the most likely patron saint they have an image of.

This is what really tears me up, when you see notes pictures of kids, notes, you know - if that's - when I used to travel and camp out in jungles for months at a time, my kids would make a drawing for me, I'd have that in my footlocker for the whole month. I travel with that and I see that and I think, you know - they're dads, they're moms, they're going to somewhere new and they need this stuff.

BRUCE PARKS: It's not something we ever expected to do.

It's a labor of love, you know, for a lot of people. It's not something we ever planned on doing.

I tend to forget pretty quickly, except for what I've been exposed to maybe recently.

I autopsied a guy just a couple weeks ago. He had fallen - he must have been atop a rock and he fell and broke his pelvis. Looked like he'd lived for a while. Normally you can't tell but his - his liver had a small tear in it and it looked like it was starting to heal, or had some kind of reaction

To think of somebody who's been injured just laying out there, probably got rained on and died of the cold 'cause the injury didn't kill him directly, that's very disturbing.

I try not to think about those things, you know, but you do, you catch yourself, and you just try to throw it out of your head.

WILLIAM B ADDISON: The effect on the family is probably… the sooner they find out, the better off they are. No matter what the news is, no news is good news is not necessarily true if they're expecting the worst in the first place.

If the county will authorize the burial, they're put two to a grave. A columbarium is a building or a unit has niches in it and the niches hold cremated remains. I think at some point in time they'll probably put - I think they plan to put a plaque up on the side with the names of the people that are in there - that they know.

transcripts: Dr. Bruce Parks

Dr. Bruce Parks


I'm the Chief Medical Examiner here at the Pima County Forensic Science Center, which is here in Tucson.

This office is the Medical Examiner's office where work is done with regard to death investigation according to the state law that mandates that certain kinds of deaths must be reported to the medical examiner and the medical examiner will perform an investigation. So, what we do here is primarily examine remains of individuals to better determine how and why they died; and create reports and other activities that are involved.

It's primarily Pima County but not exclusively because we also do work for Santa Cruz County which as you know is to the south and and Pima County kind of envelops it and it also includes much of the work of people who're discovered in Pinal County, probably the great majority of them have been brought to us as well.

We get notified by law enforcement that an individual has been found deceased and they will tell us how and where to retrieve the body. And if they have the person's name they let us know that. In some cases there might be somebody traveling with the individual who can identify who they are and give that information to law enforcement, so sometimes when we pick an individual up we have an idea who the name is. And then, we try to confirm that, even though we have a name and some people say who that person is, we still need to confirm that the person is of that name, and in cases where they have no name; if they're found and nobody reports them as being dead, we have field agents who go and bring the people back, so they're the transporting people, and they also take photographs of the scene and get some preliminary information from law enforcement.

So they'll bring the person back here. Our investigator is usually the first person who gets a call about a potential medical examiner death, and they will get information from the law enforcement officer that are reporting the death and they will dispatch our field agent to go bring the person back. So, through the course of events,  the investigator is really the point-person for gathering information, for making sure that the wheels move of the identification process. the pathologist will do the examination initially, and will document all the property and any identifying characteristics or features; scars, marks, tattoos, and that sort of thing, from the soft tissues/ from the skin, and look through the body, see if there is any evidence of surgery, and then that information gets relayed to the investigator in case some of that might be important. If the person is too badly decomposed, the anthropologist might get involved pretty early on to assist with those determinations that I mentioned. if the person is in pretty good shape, the anthropologist won't be involved right away, or if they haven't decomposed too much. If, however, they remain here for a long period of time, and we still don't know who they are, the anthropologist will perform some work like a dental examination, dental x-rays, and take other x-rays of the body, and save a piece of bone from the person, so that once they're released as an unidentified person, then we have something to go back to, so we can send a specimen out for DNA analysis, if we ever reach a point where we have a large databank of unknown samples, which we're working on, or if someone comes to us and says they're missing somebody who travelled at a certain time and they can describe the clothes, then we might be able to figure out who they are based on that. We try to gather as much information as possible, retain that, archive that, so that even the person leaves our office at some point, we're still able to perhaps identify them.

collective effort

The Mexican Consulate and the other foreign consulates are just crucial; we would not be able to do nearly what we do as far as identifying people and keeping the process going, because of the inabilities of this office to know the workings of the Mexican government or any other foreign government, and how you can search documents, and check the validity of those documents through the different government structures of Mexico or other countries; just how to use the communications systems to reach the families of these people is just something  we could never do. So they're just absolutely crucial, and we need them a lot. The humanitarian groups; well, they do their work and try and prevent the deaths, and it's just those who are in need and, I know have probably saved a number of people from ending up here, I know the border patrol has their BORSTAR division, trying to save people, and keep them from ending up here, so there's a lot of work with those groups to try to keep these deaths from happening. As you said, Derechos Humanos will take some missing person reports, and Humane Borders, I believe will do some of that as well, and we share information with all the agencies, we're very good about giving other people our information, along with the press, and a lot of other people; but it's a concerted effort by everybody.

We will contact the Mexican Consulate staff to assist with the identification process so at some point we'll have them come look at all the property we find. They are the ones generally that track down the phone numbers/ the names to try to determine whether a person by…  let's say if we have a document that says that a person is of a particular name, they will trace down whether a person of that name really exists. And if so, was that person known to have left their residence or where they live, and are they thought to have come across the border, and if so, when, and see if it matches up that we might be dealing with the same person, they also will describe or have the people describe any clothing they might have, or personal possessions they might have and see if any of that matches up with what we recover when we have the body here. In many cases, we don't have any documentation, and when that happens, it's unlikely that we're going to identify the person, but we still do an examination, we still document all of their effects, we have anthropologists who look at the  remains, because quite often they're decomposed beyond all recognition, and they'll give us an idea of whether it's a man or a woman; how old they might be; whether they're skeletal makeup is consistent with somebody who's of mixed ancestry, which is typically the background is of the people. So we'll look for scars, marks, tattoos, anything like that, any potential identifying features, and enter all that into our database and put all that information aside so that maybe if we get information down the road, we might still be able to identify them based on the information that we gather.

starting from scratch

Then we start from scratch basically and we bring the individual back here and go through all their possessions, looking for any documents that might indicate who they might be. And then any paperwork, any writing, any names, anything at all, that might give us a lead as to who the person is.

We try to document all their effects, we take photographs of their effects, we even wash their clothing now so we'll be better able to see patterns on clothing or hidden writing that might be on clothing, and also to check the pockets and se if anything else was missed, so we'll document all that, and plus, the characteristics of the person themselves, like height, weight, scars, marks, tattoos, any unusual find, the dentition, you know, whether there are missing teeth, or if they have cavities or fillings or any ornamental dental work, all of that will be documented, and sometimes photographed, and x-rays of the person would be taken and retained, and the bone sample saved. Hopefully the DNA will be typed, so we'll have all that, then in the future, if somebody comes forward and provides us with missing person information, we might be able to still match up a person, and then those remains can be removed from the county cemetery and then they can be reunited with the family at a later date.

In addition to the DNA typing that's being paid for by the United States federal government, the Mexican government has started to request that samples be sent to BODE laboratory for DNA analysis paid for by the Mexican government. So, we have about five hundred samples right now, I believe, of unidentified individuals, and two hundred and seventy will be paid for by the United States grants, so far--they may end up doing more of that typing, but in the mean time, all of those that haven't been covered by the U.S. federal grants will be covered by the Mexican government in lots of thirty. We've been sending thirty at a time, and I think we've sent about sixty, so far, so two-seventy and sixty is about three hundred and thirty samples so far that seem to be covered, and if the Mexican government continues to take samples of thirty at a time or whatever, we could conceivably get all of the specimens typed. We're kind of working on the issue of the typing that's being paid for by the Mexican government can be entered into the United States database; the two hundred seventy-five that are being paid for through the U.S. federal are going to be entered into the CODIS database and we're still working on whether we can get the profiles that were paid for by the Mexican government into that same database. Then, hopefully, families who are largely going to be foreign nationals, can submit their samples, families of missing people can submit their own samples to have analyzed and then be compared with all of the unknowns. That would be a best case scenario.

waiting game

When we run out of leads, and the corresponding consulate also feels like there are no more leads, we will turn the information over to the public fiduciary's office, which is another county department. they will do an investigation on their own quite often, and then once they feel that everything has been done, they will call, or send information, or however they do that... then enlist Adiar funeral home to come here and pick the remains up and have the individual either cremated or buried, and placed into approver area inside the county cemetery.

Basically we're playing a waiting game... if the body's not here any more, we don't know who they are, we've collected our information, if we have a missing persons report given to us, we currently have an investigator from the University of Arizona, an anthropology graduate student who is taking missing persons information and entering that into the database, and so, she will take that missing persons report and then see if the information she's given might match up with anybody we have already, so if they say the person went missing within a certain timeframe, we can take a look at all the people who we think might have died in that timeframe and see if we have any similarities. hopefully what we can do in the future is to take that missing persons information and enter it into this database that we're working on and then have the computer power go ahead and do this matching process (if I can use that term) so, that's one of the projects that are underway here is to develop a database that would take missing persons information and the unidentified information and cross reference each database to see if any similarities occur and any probabilities occur. that's also taking into account this current project; where the person was recovered and developing some theories as to where a person might end up. If we know a last seen alive position; where a person might end up; knowing the corridors of travel through the southern Arizona desert and figuring out where they might have ended up, and then using that spatial data as well to help match the missing with the unidentified. So, in the future, hopefully, we'll be able to have that system operational and to link up some of the missing persons with the unidentified that we have.

Well, the identification process is always part of our biggest challenge, and storage space - we end up holding on to people for  a long time to get all the work done that we need to do. I know Dr Anderson is quite often strapped for his time and we're trying got get, we've got some money for some consultants to come in and assist him, some forensic anthropologists to come in and help with some of that work.  A challenge is what I mentioned before about the DNA database and to get the Mexican government, since that's where most people originate, to get them to work with the US government and get a unified database and allow families from other countries to submit samples and put all this intuit he database, to get all the other offices that have unidentified people to submit those samples and have those entered in the database, exhume people who have died who never had any specimen removed - so that's going to take a lot of work and a lot of money to do something like that, and I don't know if that's money that's going to be freed up by whichever government's going to do that.  Those are what I see as the challenges.

a labor of love

First of all, they're people and as we were talking earlier, these are people with families, there's a story behind every one of these people and if this was a person that was a relative of yours or mine you would hope that somebody was doing as much as possible to try to identify who they are.  So it's just basically, I hate to say the right thing to do, but that's what it is, it's just the humanitarian in all of us to try to do as much as possible given that we have the resources to do so and our county has been really good about letting us do the extra work that we think we have to do to identify the people and to do as much as possible to do that identification.  It's a labor of love for a lot of people and just part of our need to be thorough and comprehensive as scientists to do a good job, as conscientious public employees to be through, so as long as we have the backing and support of the county, we'll continue to do that.  We all wish, of course, that we didn't have to, we all wish that this didn't happen, and it's a tragedy, it's a lot of work for the office, it's not something we ever planned on doing, but unfortunately, every year we think it's the turning point - it hasn't turned out to be, and we just, year by year, wait to see what happens.

I think it goes back to the humanitarian aspect - people are dying in relatively large numbers coming across a dangerous geographic area that's very inhospitable, and they're risking their lives to better, in general, to better themselves because of poor comic conditions in their home country.  Its been going on now for over 10 years and there're offices like this which are involved in finding out who the people are and there's offices doing other aspects of the work to try to locate these people and save them and take care of them and render medical care, if they're lucky enough to survive.  So in southern Arizona, and a few other places along the border, it's a big deal and it's a sad situation.

a little extra

I tend to forget pretty quickly, except for what I've been exposed to pretty recently.  I guess the one thing that really bothers me is there was a three year old that died a couple years ago, and the mother was apprehended and didn't tell the authorities until she was about to be sent back and she mentioned that her three year old had died, and that's terrible.  I autopsied a guy just a couple weeks ago… he had fallen, there was some big rocks and he must have been atop a rock, and he fell and he broke his pelvis, and he looked like he lived for a while which we normally can't tell but his liver had a small tear in it, and it looked like it was starting to heal or had a reaction to the injury, and that's an unpleasant thought, to think of somebody who's been injured just laying out there and probably got rained on and died from the cold, 'cause the injury didn't kill him directly, so that's very disturbing and stuff like that.  I just try not to think about those things, you know, you do, you catch yourself and you just try to throw it out of your head immediately.  You know, all of these have to be terrible to die…unless you're in a car crash, where you die very quickly, but dying from the heat or the cold, you have to be pretty miserable.

It's not discouraging…it's a bit exhausting sometimes, all facets of it.  I deal with the press quite a bit, and students, and humanitarian groups, and it takes a whole lot of my time and it does kind of wear on you.  The tragedy of the situation is similar to the tragedy that we see on a daily basis here of people who often through no fault of their own or maybe were naive to some degree end up dying at the wrong place at the wrong time, and the innocent victims are kind of hard, but you just can't do this work without putting that aside and looking at the work at hand and what you need to do to make a bad situation better.  There's some reward when you feel you've done a good job and you've been able to answer questions of families and you've been able to identify somebody and get the person back to their family and remove the doubts that might exist.  It's gotta be a terrible shock to people to find out, but on the other hand maybe they're not tortured for years and years wondering what happened.  So we get personal satisfaction, we have people who will thank us sometimes, not real often, but it's nice - it's just like any job, I think you pride yourself on being thorough, complete, and getting it done and going a little extra sometimes.

transcripts: Robin Reineke

Robin Reineke


Carmen's case is a particularly memorable one both for medical legal reasons and for sort of the emotional side of his family and what happened.

He was one of 8 brothers and they all had migrated, and he was the very last one, he was the youngest, and he basically was staying there to help out with his parents, and he was very connected to his family. And he fell in love with someone and got married and she was pregnant with his son.

What caught my eye was I was entering Carmen's information into the database, and I noticed this red shoes, blue shirt, and black pants combination, and it, something - I remembered there being some combination that was really similar, so I started to go through the cases again, and I found this and I was like, wow, well, that's exactly they said - dark blue long sleeve shirts, black dress pants, this is what the family reported, black tennis shoes with red stripes, and then they said he had large birthmarks on his face and black hair, and on his right knee he had an operation scar. So I thought, well that's probably close enough.

So everything was matching up, so I decided to call the brother and ask him if he would view these photographs of the clothing, and if they would be familiar to him. And I asked him while I was on the phone with him, you know, do these names, Victorino, Attendela ring a bell to you, and he said, 'oh, no, but maybe they're coyote names - the names of the traffickers,' so I thought, oh that makes sense, you know, people often write down the names of who they're traveling with a lot.

A lot of migrants carry saint cards to protect them, it's like having a rosary or extra protection, and the most common are like the Virgin de Guadalupe.

This one I'd never heard of, Senor Santiago ------, and then it says, venerated in Ox--- Guerrro -, Mexico. But the important thing was that on the back, there's this handwriting here, and it said, what Dr Anderson and I kept reading, 'Victorino,' and then it says something 'Grande floragot' - couldn't read that - and then this looks like it says 'Acatandela' and then we couldn't read that, but it looks like 'Acatandela,' definitely one word, and then we couldn't tell what that said, maybe 'Cruz,' we didn't know, so I had this word in my head and I wrote it down and I said 'Acatandela' and then I wrote down 'Victorino' and I couldn't understand the rest of it but I wrote that in the notes. And then I actually had a couple of dreams about that word I think 'cause it stuck in my head and I was goggling it a lot because I was trying got figure out if it was a town or a village or someone's last name and I kept coming up with nothing. These 2 t's, that's really unusual in Spanish, so I couldn't figure it out.

So I sent him the photographs of these, I sent him this one, I sent him that one, this one here, I sent him this one - and I sent him this one, and I sent him these two - the front and back of the card. He called back and he said first of all, i'm certain that this is my brother and I know because this card, this is our saint that we venerate in our town, this is close to where they're from - yeah, this is Geurrro____, and that's the same state, and then he said, but i know definitely this is him because what this says is Acatlan de la Cruz and that's the name of their town in Gu___ and this also says Grande, so that's Carmen's last name, Carmen Attunez Grande, and then it looks like he started to write the town where he's from, and Victorino's probably the coyote's name.

And once you get to the positive id point for the scientist, it's not necessarily easy from then on out, for a number of reasons. A lot of times you get, it's not good enough for the family, why should they trust you.

When a family can't look someone in the face, it's very hard for them to take a set of bones and trust you that this is their brother.

So the actual way that we finally identified him - because clothing, circumstances, all that stuff, it's not really enough, because it's not anything, it's not personally, specifically identifying. It's sort of saying, ok, Carmen was in the same place, he fits the characteristics of this dead person, but there's nothing that's screaming out that this is actually him, nothing that prevents that body from being another person that just happened to be similar to Carmen.

So what we were able to do is take a facial photograph of Carmen and we expanded - I zoomed in a lot, this is the one where he's smiling with the flag - I think I have it, did I have it on here? oh, it's this one - so we took, we were able to get closer and look at his teeth, and actually the way that his incisors are tilted, that's called winging - it's a characteristic where the teeth kind of wing out, and that was noted in the forensic anthropology report, and so we were able to narrow it down even more.

And then his family was able to send us skeletal radiographs of a knee injury that he had, and this kind of interesting, it actually wasn't injury or the surgery that identified him, it was the morphology of the bone. So we were able to take the ante-mortem - prior to death - x-rays and compare them to postmortem x-rays and just look at the shape, the contour of the patella, and compare those between antemoretem and postmortem to say it's the same individual. So that's just a process, it's tough, you have to angle the body so that it's the right body to mimic the angle that the the prior to death radiograph was taken. So that resulted in a positive id.

He didn't get to meet his son before he passed away.

By the time we id-ed him he had a 3 or 4 month little baby son.


I'll just go through, see if there's any… They're all worth a story, I mean, they're all people who shouldn't be missing...

A lawyer called me to report him missing. It was September of 2008. Apparently he was involved in a legal struggle for citizen ship for over a year, finally the only option was voluntary departure, which he did.

He tried to recross to join his wife & 3 children in Phoenix but he was never seen again after August 19. All his family knows is that he was crossing with one other man who had been deported. This man said that Luis' feet became damaged and he couldn't continue. He was left, they thought, Marshall Station or Mars Station - according to the fellow traveler, and they thought they had heard that a body was found there. So they contacted the Mexican consulate.

It's been 2 weeks and no word, now the wife is facing eviction from her apartment.

And he was identified about 2 days after they called - we were able to look at the body that was found there and he was found with an id and it had his name on it so that one really happened very quickly. So I have part of the death information here, as well as the missing persons report. So the mother is here, his wife is here with 3 kids and it's another part of - you know you have a tragedy and a loss, but you also have a serious economic catastrophe when something like that happens because she couldn't pay rent in the apartment anymore.

Without a death certificate, you can't get any money So I don't know what his situation was, but that's another thing to keep in mind. When people are missing and their status is unknown, they can't close out the estate and, you know, get everything financially closed out, so it's really a big problem.

And for people who are identified and then you know their family might be in Mexico or El Salvador they face the additional expense of shipping the body back, which can be thousands. And a lot of Catholics don't believe that cremating the remains is a polite thing to do, and so they want to ship the entire body or they feel that they have to sacrifice their beliefs in order to afford to be able to bury the body at home.

Death certificate costs, coffin costs, everything is very - and then you've lost somebody who probably was intentionally chosen - these are the people who migrate from Central America or Mexico - probably chosen to do this because they are the healthy young male that could make money and they were strong and they could do construction type work and then you've lost your breadwinner too.

And the age range that most of these people are in, 20 to 35, means that their parents, means that their parents are still living - they've got 2 generations on either side of them - they've got the parents and they'e got children, and so they're very socially important, economically, and emotionally, at that point in their lives.

It's really - it's a disaster situation when this happens for families.


This is the clothing found with 0096 - this is the young girl who died in May of '08 who we were comparing to Estephny. So it's like a glittery belt - and this is why I called the family initially, and I remember talking with the Dad about these clothing items and asking if they sound familiar or if he wanted to see photos of them or if he knew of someone who was traveling with her who might recognize her clothing.

She's another very young Salvadoran girl - this is another very sad case. She - her parents both live in California, and I think they've been there for a long time, and she's a case where the family felt the the best way that they could support her was by migrating and then sending money to family that took care of her in El Salvador. And when she became, when she turned 17, she decided to come up and join her parents in California, who are now divorced. And let me see when she crossed - she crossed - she left El Salvador on the 8th of May and she went to the border on the 20th of May in Arizona, I don't think that we know where she was in Arizona. And a bunch of the people she was with were detained, and they say that they're not sure - she wasn't detained and they say that - they're not sure, she wasn't detained and they don't know what happened to her. And she's from El Salvador, but she traveled from Puebla as well.

It's really sad and she's - her dad actually - I was searching for her after I got her report from the Salvadoran consulate and I did a search and I called the family to ask some of those specific follow up questions, you know, was there a possibility that she, you know, had this dental condition and…I talked to the Dad in California, and this was on a Friday, and he showed up here on a Monday and he wanted to look through the bodies and to come and identify her and he drove all the way with three of his other family members, to come here. And they were waiting in my office when I showed up here on Monday morning and I like, had an apple, and totally didn't expect them at all.

So we sat down with them and tried to compare, to go over the comparison, the woman that I was comparing her to and we sat here with Dr Anderson and talked to them about the clouting and sort of went back and forth between this room here and the autopsy ___________, I think the body was kept, at that point the body was skeletal so he was going back and forth to compare what they were saying to the clothing, and to compare what they were saying to the cranium. And he wanted to see the cranium so badly, and Dr Anderson refused to let him do that and said something like, 'if this was my daughter, this is not the last time that I would want to see her, like this,' so he, I think thankfully, prevented the father from doing that. But he just wants to know what happened and to complete the process.

So the aunt and uncle that were here with him that day went and looked at the cranium, and they really believed that it was here, based on the crooked central incisors. so they went through - the whole community pooled their money together to pay for the DNA exam, because the Salvadoran consulate doesn't fund that - it's a poor country and it's an expensive process and it'sjust not something that there's a 100% funding for.

So the entire community got together and pooled their money, like $500 or $600 for a DNA exam and it turned out not to be her, which is...like 3 over because that means that there's another 17 year old or 16 year old dead girl that's not Estephany, and the family went through all of this and they didn't find their daughter, so… we're still looking for her.

For some of the cases, something else that's interesting and really sad… Some of the older cases, when families get - stay in this state of limbo for so long, I think it's, and I've talked to a lot of families about this, and about the experience of sort of not knowing - you're kind of constantly doing this exhausting process of searching in your mind for what could have happened and searching for explanations that make sense. Your brian, whether you want it to or not is trying to make sense of this, it's trying to remap itself to figure out what happened and why is there this absence in your life.

And I think an unfortunate effect of people who wait for a really long time is that other narratives become truth to them, so I've had experiences where we've probably made id's with people and they're not able to be - the family doesn't want to cooperate or actually proceed with making an identification because they really don't believe anymore that she or he is dead, because they've already moved past that as an option and the body wasn't found, and they've come up with another something - another explanation or something that emotionally works for them. You know, it's like you have to come up with a strategy and then to have somebody come into your life and be like, 'well, actually she is dead and you've got to start over emotionally.' And I think it's, like, a lot to ask.

Right now I'm trying to - there's someone who's been missing since '05 and I think that we have an ID for him, but the family's being very weird with us, and they don't want to cooperate and I think that it's been that long and his wife is who we're trying to talk to. And she's in her 60s, and she sounds really old, and she's illiterate, and I think that we're not getting cooperation from her. And I think that, I think that we're probably going to have to release the body as an unknown, even though we know probably who it is. But that's a very small percentage of people, but it's - I think it kind of demonstrates how psychologically hard this is on people, you know.


I deal with the missing persons reports for migrants, and I do the databasing as well as taking the reports, so when the family calls to report someone missing to this office, I would take that report and get all the information. and that's our forensic science center, that's another name for this office, that's our missing persons report form.

I go through and I ask them everything that I can on that; everything that's relevant, I ask them if they can send me a photograph, I write down the narrative of what happened, usually on an attached page; you know, they crossed at Sassabe and then they walked for four days without water and this was a report I just got yesterday; a brother called in to report his brother missing, and they had walked for four days in the desert with no water. And it was two brothers, and they crossed at Sassabe, and he believes that they made it to some sort of air force base or airport, but he really doesn't' know where, but the brother that made it said that he could hear planes taking off and stuff, so the brother that made it was hospitalized for thirty days, with kidney failure. And he's OK, looking for the other one.

Anyways, I would write down that type of a narrative, and I would wait to get photographs from the family and then i would attach all of that and then I would sit down and I would do an exhaustive initial search, just based on; OK, they called right now, I'm going to go ahead right now and sit down and any bodies that could be that person, I'm going to go through and compare, so this is our 2008-2009 missing persons, and it's not everybody right now, because i've pulled a bunch, because i'm trying to enter them into the OGIS database.

So in my initial questioning, I'll just get everything that I can from them, and then when I actually get to the point where i'm comparing a body to a missing person, then I'll talk to the forensic anthropologist and he'll take out whatever records for the body, and he'll say, 'well, you know, this person had very unusual, um, I don't know- jaw structure' or 'he had a possibility that he might have had a speech impediment,' or 'this person had a very painful back molar,' and so then, I'll ask a very specific question to the family at that  point.

Another one that I've been searching for; it's him with his little baby. He was actually wearing this shirt when he crossed, so that's helpful to look for that shirt among the decedents that are brought in. Smiling Photographs are really helpful. I often try to ask families--we rarely get missing persons from Mexico that have dental records. Most missing americans, you're able to track down dental records. So, this for example, Adolfo is forty-eight years old, he's older than your average migrant coming for work, and so we have some photographs of him, and then I took this one and I really zoomed in, because he's definitely got some central incisors with silver colored/white metal, so that's helpful because we don't get the x-rays with fillings, and notes of extracted teeth, and things like that.


I'm working here on a database that's designed to automatically cross correlate, it's a relational database that's designed to have missing information sort of in one side of its brain and deceased information in the other. And so we've done a lot of data entry over the past couple of years of getting all the 15 - I'm sorry, 500 unidentified decedents and the about 500 missing persons into the database to compare them and we're also working on a geographical component that will hopefully help us to narrow down certain geographies for certain missing people or narrow down certain missing people for certain areas where bodies have been found.

OGIS was started by a geography professor and a anthropology, actually an archeology graduate student, at the end of his doctoral program back in '06. And in collaboration with HUmane Borders which has done some of the se beautiful maps which show, that have mapped where bodies have been found in Arizona borderlands. So OGIS was intended to take that geospatial information and the missing data and the decedent data from this office and try to find more identifications because at this point we have about - there've been since 2001, about 2000 migrants or believed to be migrants and 25% of those are still unidentified. So 25% we believe that they're migrants based on personal effects, dentition, evidence that they are from Mexico or central America and geographical context.

And so OGIS is designed to take the information about the identified people and apply it to the unidentified and compare the unidentified to the missing and try to make more matches automatically. Because if you take 500 missing and multiply it by 500 unidentified, what is that… 20,000 possibilities, and obviously that's not complete because you wouldn't be comparing missing men to dead women, but it gives you an idea of what you're brain is trying to do when you're trying to sort through all of these potential matches. It's a big puzzle, way too big, so a database would be really helpful, and we're hoping that that would be up and running by the end of the year.

We're hoping to have a web component so that - it would actually be very, very similar to NAMEUS. So if you poke around on the NAMEUS website and get familiar with that, so that families would be able to, in Spanish if they needed to, report someone missing, and that there would be someone kind of behind the scenes who would vet those - ok, the way that you described this dentition isn't going to work, we need… and then get on the phone with the family - but then the family could kind of see what's going on and be able to actually see that report and see it up there and maybe actually see the possibilities and be able to think about things that way. And then once we get some matches through the database, then we would proceed to more scientific, forensic or genetic comparisons.

It's going to save hours and hours of time - and at this point - so the hardest cases for that, for what you're talking about are when a family calls up and they say, 'oh, we're only now reporting someone missing who went missing in '07.' So that would mean, for me to give them any information right now, and that's what the family thinks that they're going to get when they call up like that is, 'Can you just tell us?,' and I have to sort through hundreds of records. So that'll be great - because ideally - you know, if they, say they call up today, Friday, maybe on Monday I can come up and the system will have processed several possibilities, and at least I can say, ok, we have a possibility - two of them have tattoos, one of them has this characteristic, do you know, you know, could this, did your brother ever have a ____ , or some particular dental thing, or did they ever have surgery, or did they speak with a lisp, or did they have a painful tooth - you can try to narrow it down and rule people out that way.

enough dignity

There's this guy who was identified over the summer - 15 year old Guatemalan boy coming from the same town that I did 10 weeks of language study in Guatemala and he had like a little orange paper flower in his pocket and you know it's just stupid, stupid death, just really stupid - like, it doesn't matter, like, about this illegality stuff at a certain point when you have stories like that or like Josseline in the Weekly - it's just ridiculous and it doesn't need to be that way, so that part is really depressing.

I think the main problematic thing is just that you're dealing with the population of people that are very vulnerable and afraid, and that's why they're not coming forward themselves to report family members because they don't--if they get reported, who knows, they might risk being separated from their own children, and then going through a whole other round of losses.

And when I bump into situations like where the family doesn't want to cooperate or where we can't track down the family anymore it's really discouraging…. Yeah, it's definitely, and I have days that are really hard.

At least it feels, I feel good because I'm in an academic field and so it feels really good to be doing something that feels like you're at least trying really hard to have some kind of, you know, result at the end of your day that actually might have meaning for a family.

I find rewarding when I make id's and when I'm able to know that a body won't be lingering here and molding in the morgue, but at least the family'll be able to bury their person. And I find it rewarding because I think in this situation, like, a lot of attention goes towards the fact that people have already died, and then I kind of feel like it gets forgotten after that, and like these 500 people that right now don't have names and that are being cremated as unknowns, the way that we treat our dead means a lot and like, not putting the effort in and sort of paying attention to what's going on there, and working to find out who these people are, it's like - it doesn't give them enough dignity. So I find it really rewarding and really, really frustrating at the same time.



SET 1:

landscape - Glimpses of Arizona's landscape between Nogales and Sasabe, south of Phoenix.

fences - Views of the fences along the U.S.-Mexico border in southern Arizona.

nogales - Scenes of Nogales from the Arizona and Sonora sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.

samaritans - Hiking with volunteers from the Tucson humanitarian group The Samaritans in southern Arizona.

traces - Found in southern Arizona on roads or trails: 1-49 from Tumacácori on 13 February 2010, 50-59 from Hwy 286 between Three Points and Sasabe on 20 February 2012 & 60-72 from west of Nogales, Arizona on 14 April 2012

SET 2:

recovery - On the afternoon of Friday, June 26, 2010 southern Arizona law enforcement responded to a call from a Lochiel area rancher who found a body on his property.

pcome - The Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner handles cases for southern Arizona counties.

law & order - Government and law enforcement photos from both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.

transcripts: resources for missing persons

resources for missing persons

Time can be critical in missing persons cases. Waiting allows clues to disappear and people who may have information to become unavailable.

For family members that have gone missing crossing the border, there is no centralized phone number to call for people who’ve gone missing. Resources for families of missing persons is an active resource list maintained at Missing from Mexico (the reporter's blog).

the process project

Northbound - Four snapshots of crossing southern Arizona.

Unidentified Dead Common on the Border - A report exploring how doctors, law enforcement, forensic anthropologists and families of missing immigrants band together in an effort to match unidentified dead bodies with missing persons. (also available in pdf or through the News21 2010 ASU Team site)

Death in the Desert 2004 – 2010 - An interactive data map for Unidentified Dead Common on the Border showing recorded migrant deaths in southern Arizona from January 2004 to July 14, 2010.

Missing & Missed - Concepcion and Laura Elizabeth traveled through the Arizona-Sonora bordertown of Nogales in the summer of 2009 - and were never heard from again. (also available in pdf or through the News21 2010 ASU Team site)

Family Ties - Interviews and other background material from Missing & Missed.

VOBI - 25 assorted interview clips from academics, activisits, law enfocement and politicians on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border about area issues in the summer of 2010.

Trapped in violence: Undocumented abuse victims face hurdles - A spring 2011 report on undocumented women facing domestic violence.

Undocumented Abuse - Interviews and other background material from Trapped in violence: Undocumented abuse victims face hurdles.

Uncertain Journey - Interviews and other background material from Unidentified Dead Common on the Border.

Missing from Mexico - Started in 2012, the reporter's blog about missing persons, unidentified bodies and other issues of life along the U.S.-Mexico border.