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 cases.
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.