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Texas Case Update: Catching up with investigators

Last week, we heard about the set of mystery remains that were found in a field in Texas in March. I had a chance to catch up with officials on the case to talk about how a real investigation is conducted and clarify some inconsistent news reports about the case.

“Please understand why law enforcement is sometimes reluctant to work with the media,” McBride said. “The frustrating part of using the media is that sometimes they don’t report what we give them accurately. In any (media) report, there is usually something that is inaccurate, lost in translation or just sounds better to the reporter, but has lost context because it was changed. I know it’s not done with malicious intent, but this is the result.”

KSAT Antonio reported a range of heights for the individual and The Seguin Gazette reported an exact height of 5’2”. Those sources also had inconsistent information about the amount of time the individual has been in the field, which is less than two years and more than one month. These inconsistencies were mostly due to the change of information as it became available.

Investigator Sgt. Zachary McBride of the Guadalupe County Sheriff’s Department confirmed that the woman’s height is estimated to be between 5’0” and 5’6”, while the preliminary report’s minimum height was 4’11”. Five-foot-two inches is the middle data point for the height range.

Before the height was ever determined, however, a lot went into the location of the skeleton.

“While the majority of the bones were spread over the field due to plowing activity, the skull was found mostly intact with only the left part of the maxilla missing,” McBride said. “This was recovered a week later and fit perfectly into the missing part of the skull.”

The department, through the Texas Rangers, will use a 3-D printed copy of the skull in order to reconstruct the face of this unidentified female. An artist from the Department of Public Safety will undertake the task of reconstructing the face.

In addition to the identification of the remains, the department is tasked with compiling evidence and admissible witness and suspect statements.

“We have recovered all the evidence we can locate,” McBride said. “There are no known witnesses (the neighboring areas have been canvassed) and of course no known suspect. The investigation can really only begin once we know our victim’s identity and use a time line from when she was last seen to build the investigation from that point.”

Original Source

Sgt. McBride is working with Dr. Daniel Wescott at the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State University.

Dr. Wescott and the other investigators had to search for and map evidence, transport the remains to the laboratory and do a full work-up. This means they conducted a biological profile (sex, ancestry, age, etc.), documented dentition and examined the bones for trauma and taphonomic damage, which includes preservation and signs animal scavenging. This information was entered into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs database. Lastly, DNA samples were sent to be analyzed in hopes of getting a match.

The role of the forensic scientist isn’t complete at this point.

“We also will aid law enforcement in the exclusion of individuals or the positive identification of the person,” Wescott said.

When asked about the possibility the remains belonged to an undocumented individual, whether there was clothing or other effects found in the field, and what the cause of death was, officials refrained from answering – and for good reason.

“The answer to those questions are controlled information that we would use to test the truthfulness of a witness or suspect if we ever interview them,” McBride said. “I have experienced cases where witnesses will intentionally lie or just misremember details. I have had suspects give ‘false confessions,’ for whatever reason. If the witness or suspect is able to correctly answer these questions you are asking without the answer being in the public domain, it lends credibility to their statement.”

For this reason, there is information for cases like these that is limited to the investigators and involved parties. Some leads were ruled out using dental records against local missing persons. This ongoing investigation will continue to pursue local missing persons.

“In the end, it will be DNA and/or dental records that identify our victim,” McBride said.

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ForAnth News Alert #3

On March 2, human remains were found in a farmer’s field near Marion, Texas.

The skeletal remains were found by a farmer, who was on a tractor at the time. When he got out of the vehicle to see what he hit, a human skull stared back at him, prompting him to call the Guadalupe County Sherriff’s Department.

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Seguin Gazette

Throughout the month, the investigators and officials on the case recovered a large amount of the skeleton on or near the field (pictured left), which initial analysis describes as an adult Hispanic or white female between the ages of 25 to 40 years old and between 5’0″ and 5’6″ tall.

Because the suspicious nature of this death, investigators are looking at any signs that would indicate foul play. The remains have been in the field anywhere from six months to two years.

Investigator Sgt. Zachary McBride told reporters of the Seguin Gazette there is a possibility the deceased is not a murder victim, but a transient who died in the field. Because there is the possibility of murder, however, it is a top priority for the investigators.

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So far, there have been no hits from local missing individuals, so the county will expand their search. The local pool of missing individuals don’t share the skeleton’s height and age range. Sgt. McBride said investigators were “not convinced this is a local person.”

The next steps will be to analyze the bones for DNA and to compare the teeth with dental records from different databases.

Still, it will be the courage of people in the community to come forward with information that will be invaluable in identifying the set of remains.

“We know that this is somebody’s family member, somebody’s baby girl, somebody’s sister, somebody’s daughter. People out there are going to be able to point us in the right direction to figure out who this lady is and find out how she died,” McBride said in an interview with KSAT Antonio.

Hopefully, investigators and local citizens will work together to discover her identity, as well as the many other unanswered questions this case brings into focus.

**I’ve contacted Sgt. McBride. Stay tuned for updates about the case.**

 

 

 

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ForAnth News Alert #2

This week, a story was published by Atlas Obscura that talks about the science behind why forensic anthropologists want to bury bodies around Los Angeles.

Earlier this month, the Los Angeles County Chief Medical Examiner-Coroner Dr. Mark Fajardo resigned because of how stressful the extreme under-staffing of his department was. Because of financial issues, the county’s morgue has 180 sets of human remains backing up the work down at the morgue.

The backlog of remains has always been an issue for the county due to the massive volume of cases it receives. More than 60,000 deaths need to be processed each year. The county’s medical examiners are required to discover the details surrounding all violent and sudden deaths.

Basically, there is a whole lot of work and not a whole lot of staff or financial support. So, what can be done about this?


 

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A solution could be to create a new body farm program for research. Implementing this sort of program would allow forensic anthropologists to research human decomposition specifically in the climate of Southern California.

If this was developed in LA County, it would be the seventh facility to operate in the United States.

“At a time when forensic evidence in the courtroom weighs heavily on the outcome of a case, the legitimacy of data and dexterity with which law enforcement employs it is paramount. Body farm research, then, is a valuable intermediary between forensic anthropology studies and law enforcement application, providing protocol for the standardization of supporting data to assist in live casework.”-Emma Kemp, writer

This would also help out the local morgue because it would give the people of the county another option for donating their bodies to science. The current pool of options is severely limited.

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All scientists are atheists, duh…

According to new research, the battle between science and religion isn’t only socially created. It’s a battle that’s going on in each of our brains.

Basically, one side of the brain is more emphatic while the other side is analytical. When using one of these networks, the other is lessened.

The study suggests a positive correlation with religion and empathy and well as with science and critical thinking. That is, religious people tend to think with empathy, which suppresses the ability to be analytical. Alternately, scientific minds think more critically, which suppresses the ability to empathize.

Statistically, scientists attend religious services almost as much as the general population. Most are some denomination of Christianity.

How can this possibly be? Doesn’t that study show that you can’t be empathetic AND analytical?

Actually, it just means that when you are practicing religion, you’re emphatic and not critically thinking. And it means when you are doing science, your brain shuts off that emotional side and allows you to focus on the data. The way our brains work actually helps us be religious and be scientists!

Interestingly enough, the more religious- or scientific-minded one is, the less they perceive a conflict between science and religion.

Anthropology is by its origins a secular discipline. It’s always striven to become the best it can be scientifically. This is necessary of all science. It should be separated from bias associated with religion, absolutely.

But being a scientist shouldn’t disqualify you from continuing or entering into a relationship with God, the Universe, Creator, etc., and being religious shouldn’t make you fear knowledge. This study shows us that these seemingly conflicting positions can actually coexist in harmony.

Personally, I don’t think believing in evolution means there is no God. I’ve never understood this argument. But then again, I’ve never irrationally believed the literal interpretation of the Bible.

Even if you are a Christian and you believe God created man, could evolution not be the vehicle through which He created us?

The disciplines of science and religion have many similar basic rules. There is a certain degree of faith when it comes to science. Both religion and science cannot be 100% proven – they are both full of theories – and both religious and scientific people have to take these theories on faith. The more evidence there is, the stronger the belief in that theory. Sometimes a theory will need to be reformulated based on the most current evidence.

When I first started seeing the world through scientific eyes, I questioned my spirituality. I so feared a life that meant nothing and a death that meant the end. I struggled to see how I could believe in science and believe in an afterlife or a Creator.

But when I look and see all the discoveries we make every day and think about the multitudes of information we have yet to unlock, the mystery of this perfect universe becomes clear.

There is so much we do not yet know, and both science and religion can work together to further human progress.

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Seeing evolution in action

Vestigial structures are features on the body that don’t have a purpose in the current form of an organism in a species.

The features start out as important players in the functioning of an organism. As natural selection occurs over time and the population of a species changes, the importance of those features phases out. Eventually, they become useless to the species.

Often, these features will be completely eradicated from a lineage. However, many of these structures stick around the gene pool, appearing within populations without serving any function. These are vestigial.

How do vestigial structures show proof of evolution?

Many of the structures are homologous, or appear the same, in other organisms.

This shows common descent between organisms. Common descent is a theory that says all organisms descend from a common ancestor. Besides analysis of DNA, homologous and vestigial structures give the non-scientific community direct, visible evidence of the evolutionary process.

This recent video from Vox shows modern human vestigiality that you can observe right now on your own body!

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READ WARNING: Lessons From Forensic Anthropology Camp

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When I was in high school, I was obsessed with forensic science. There was something sexy about scientifically investigating death, especially since my firsthand knowledge was episodes of CSI and online modules at school like “The Murder at the Pizza Party” (no joke!).

Then, the more I researched murders and dead bodies, the less I thought I would be able to handle it. So, I figured since forensic anthropologists study bones, I could do that. I could work with skeletal remains. Forensic anthropologists don’t work with flesh, right? RIGHT?

Wrong. This is something I learned the hard way.

If you are thinking about being a forensic anthropologist, I recommend getting an internship or field experience before committing to graduate school. Besides the fact that it’s an extremely tough business to get into, you have to deal with intensely pressured situations, inadequate lab equipment (it’s not like what you see on Bones), and grisly scenes that include flesh.

Most of my field school experience was spent digging up unidentified human remains. That part was fine. It was the day at the morgue that changed everything.

First, we saw the area of the morgue where the freshly dead lay, naked and vulnerable. I’m afraid of death as it is (isn’t it ironic, don’t ya think?) and seeing the reality of what happens when you die truly scarred me.

Everything just felt so impersonal – which is how it has to be for the medical examiners to keep their sanity.They even had screens with puppies and cute stuff on it to help with that.

The first dead body I saw was especially gruesome. It was a suicide. And it was hit by a train. And it wasn’t recognizable as the man it used to be. I keep saying it, but I have a good reason.

I looked straight into the person’s eyes. It hurt me to do this. I should never have looked. Because there was nothing there. It felt so empty. That’s what terrified me. No soul, no semblance of what makes us what we are. The visual was bad, yes, but our meat suits aren’t our essence. He didn’t have an essence – and that shook me to my core.

After trying to get that out of my head, we stopped for a group photo. Almost everyone’s smiling in it…but I’m just looking ahead, trying not to cry.


 

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Then, it was time for maceration. Yay.

Maceration is part of the forensic anthropologist’s listed duties in America. (In the UK, this isn’t the case.) Maceration, for those of you who don’t know, is when you soften and break down skin and flesh to get to the bones.

It’s a very important step in a lot of cases where an individual is unknown. Once the flesh is out of the way, the bones can speak to us, revealing secrets that can lead to identification, cause of death, age, sex, ancestry and more. It can be done using flesh-eating insects, emulsifying agents and more traditional methods.

In our case, we had boiling pots of water, cases of unidentified body part samples and sophisticated tools like toothbrushes. The part I had to work on was a femur – which was one of the least grisly parts present. Around me, people worked on skulls and other parts that were already mostly fleshless – to start off with.

I put my femur into the pot of boiling water. The first thing I noticed was the smell. It was like rotten Thanksgiving turkey…or like pork ribs that were left to mold on your stove for weeks. It was the smell of a decaying human being cooking.

I didn’t even make it to the point where I was going to scrape the flesh off with our “sophisticated” array of tools. I couldn’t do it. I was so nauseous. Also, I was totally freaked out because I sat in the middle of the outdoor area we were in, and as I looked around, my fellow students were sitting with buckets of water, brushes and people parts, just going at it, getting down to the bone.

This isn’t to say this wasn’t traumatizing for them, either. Somehow, though, they were stronger than me. They were able to compartmentalize what they were doing and tuck it away (mostly) as science. But, make no mistake, we all needed a drink at the end of that day.

I’m happy I didn’t stick around for more, even though I desperately wanted to be cut out for this job. I heard from others that they worked on a fully fleshed foot. They described the sound of the breaking toes and defleshing the section. Even what I imagined scarred me. Screw actually being around for it!

I beat myself up about “chickening out” on this for a while. I wished I was stronger. I wished I could look at it medically. But, for me, it was dehumanizing. And, at the end of the day, I decided if I had to lose some of my humanity, some of what makes me who I am, that it wasn’t worth it.

My mentor also helped me get over myself and made me realize I was courageous and that now I wouldn’t be wasting time and money furthering my education in a field I wasn’t cut out for.

These were all valuable, necessary lessons. Necessary pain.

Working in the field and digging up skeletons was great. There are so many other things I learned, but they aren’t necessary for the point of this entry. Honestly, I’ve never had as much fun in my life than when I was sweating under the hot California sun digging up John and Jane Does. It’s truly fascinating, and it revealed to me what I want to do in the future.

I want to work with bonesjust bones.

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