PHOENIX — Arizona ranks third nationally among states with the highest
number of unidentified human remains, and officials say the reason is the
high number of people who die while attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico
border through the state’s remote deserts.
Such cases are harder to solve because scorching desert heat makes
identification of bodies more difficult, and individuals crossing the border
often intentionally obscure their identities, The Arizona Republic reported.
The federal National Missing and Unidentified Persons System database
places Arizona’s open caseload of 1,057 human remains behind only
California and New York.
On average, just 25 percent of bodies that are initially unidentified remain
so a year later, said Dr. Laura Fulginiti, forensic anthropologist for the
Maricopa County Medical Examiner’s Office.
In cases where the desert has mummified remains or left only a skeleton,
Fulginiti said, investigators catalog and photograph what they can:
possessions, fingerprints, clothing. But if only bones remain, DNA analysis
can take years.
Bagging a DNA sample and sending it to the Arizona Department of Public
Safety’s DNA lab can feel like a dead end. Bone samples will wait in line
with today’s 70 other unidentified samples, 20 of which have been waiting
for more than five years, said DPS crime lab Superintendent Vince Figarelli.
The Department of Public Safety proposed legislation in 2006 to create a
fund to deal with unidentified cases, but it failed, Figarelli said. As a result,
there is no funding to process the cases. One or two trickle through per
month outside the regular profiling for criminal cases that the department
is paid to perform, Figarelli said.
Maricopa County’s situation is not unique. There simply are not enough
resources at local agencies to deal with unidentified remains.
That has led Dr. Gregory Hess, the Pima County medical examiner, to
contract his processing services for unidentified remains to Santa Cruz,
Cochise, Graham, Greenlee, Gila, La Paz and Pinal counties.
“The work involved with trying to identify these people is probably the
biggest problem,” Hess said. Often, speed is important.
“We need to move the remains on because we’re going to run out of room.
We can’t hold them indefinitely. You need to do something with them
eventually,” Hess said.
All of Pima’s unidentified remains since 2010 have been processed and
cremated, and their ashes have been interred at a county plot to preserve
sparse storage space, Hess said.
Maricopa County buries remains without cremation, hoping that future
technologies like innovations in DNA analysis can shed light on unsolved
With the help of a national grant, Maricopa County investigators have
exhumed decades-old remains of 40 unidentified individuals. In two years,
they have identified nine using DNA analysis and a digital dental X-ray gun.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.