Texas ID Made: Sarah Gaitan

After four months, a name has been given to the set of skeletal remains that were found in a farmer’s field in Texas: Sarah Gaitan.

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Sarah Gaitan, 24, went missing in October 2015. (Original Source)

The 24-year-old mother of four was missing since October 2015. She was from San Antonio, and the field she was found in is located in Marion County.

Last time we checked in on the case, officials were still looking through local missing persons and searching the field for more evidence. This process took weeks because the field was expansive and, as the farmer worked his land, more items were discovered.

With the help of Dr. Daniel Wescott from the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State University, investigators were able to use the skeletal analysis and dental records to make this identification.

They have succeeded in the most important part of these types of investigations – giving a name to the nameless, helping the lost find their way home. While it is a tragedy that Gaitan’s four children are without a mother, the family is better off with the closure of knowing where she is.


ORIGINAL NEWS CAST: Family fears for missing woman


The investigation, however, is far from over. Cause of death is still to be determined as well as how her remains ended up in a field more than 30 miles away to begin with. Authorities have not come public about whether or not there was foul play involved, and they are still seeking information.

 

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Is FARO’s ScanArm the future of forensic 3D imaging?

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FARO.com

FARO is the leading brand in 3D measurement technology used in factory work, public safety and now forensic anthropology. The FARO® Forensic ScanArm solution was designed specifically for criminal investigations.

When used with 3D Systems Geomagic® software, the ScanArm allows scientists a noncontact way to scan items of forensic interest in high resolution. It is armed with blue laser technology, which boasts noise-free scanning in high detail at high speeds.

According to the website, it is easily portable. So, it isn’t just some piece of expensive sitting equipment. Theoretically, you could get the scan done before you even take the remains or whatever items to the laboratory.

Despite those claims, it might not be the ideal field equipment the company hoped it would be:

However, this doesn’t take away from all the good things about the equipment.

The interface is designed so that people without 3D imaging experience should be able to navigate it. With 3D imaging being a newer discipline and with its rapid technological advancement, this is important. One day, scientists will probably be able to use 3D scanning devices as easily as they can use a laptop. For now, the transition is still underway, and easy-to-use interfaces will be very helpful for both the people making the scans and the ones making the scanners.

We talked about 3D copies of skulls for facial recognition in another post. The ScanArm bears the same significance as it means to enable scientists to make these copies with the newest technology and be able to work with sturdy evidence. That is, to make identifications without damaging fragile human remains or other evidence.

“By listening to our rapidly growing base of Public Safety – Forensics customers, we have learned that thoroughly measuring and analyzing forensic evidence is of paramount importance. Our non-contact measurement tools allow forensic labs to meet this requirement while minimizing the risk of damaging the evidence. It is now possible to produce accurate and permanent 3D digital documentation of evidence from which measurements can be taken and analysis can be performed days or even decades later…” –Joe Arezone, Chief Commercial Officer of FARO

The key here is “noncontact.” According to this statement, it is no longer necessary to handle the remains or risk damaging them. Further, there are no sprays necessary for the laser to scan, so there is no apparent risk for contamination.

The ScanArm isn’t only to aid forensic anthropologists, however. It is designed for crime labs to create a digital archive of evidence to store for years to come as well as to use in court presentations. Medical examiners can use the ScanArm to digitally collect traumatic injuries quickly.

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FARO.com

Another key is the speed with which these operations can be handled. Officials desire forensic investigations to be handled with care, but mostly with speed. And it is even worse when forensic anthropology and archaeology is a component of the investigation. It is hard work. If the ScanArm hopes to be successful, it will need to do the work accurately without taking away time from an already quickly ticking clock.

I can’t wait to see how else scientists will think to use the ScanArm and if it will live up to the high claims made by FARO.

Click here to learn more about the ScanArm and to schedule a personalized web demonstration.

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FARO.com

 

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Racialization & Middle Eastern Americans

“War, hate, jealousy, racism – what are they but manifestations of fear?”
-F. Paul Wilson, American author

muslimsHave you ever been stopped at an airport because of your appearance? Has a teacher ever called you a terrorist in front of your classmates? Have you ever been publicly told you should die because of your religious beliefs and skin tone?

This and more happens to Middle Eastern-Americans every year in the United States.

We’ve talked a bit about race and social constructs on this blog before. Today, I want to explore the concept of racialization, specifically as it applies to Middle Eastern-Americans.

First, let’s define racialization. According to a quick search, you will find that it means “processes of ascribing ethnic or racial identities to a relationship, social practice, or group that did not identify itself as such.” It’s a bit vague, no?

Since America’s colonial foundations, the country has continued to see more than its fair share of racism. It isn’t surprising, in a country that started its history committed to using “whiteness” as a dominating system. Whiteness has always been, in some way, an essential characteristic of freedom. Therefore, racism establishes non-whites as different, “other,”  a label that begins racialization for any group.

As colonists marked Native Americans and African slaves as nonwhites or the inferior “them,” they also marked whites as the superior “us.” In addition, this racial hierarchy established who was able to own property and who was property. This distinction is not limited to times of slavery:

  • Chinese Exclusion Act, 1882-1943
  • Black Codes, 1865
  • Jim Crow Laws, up to 1965

African-Americans and other groups have made it through the Civil Rights Era rather victoriously. Is it fair to say the fight for civil liberties ended with the era? I think not. Inequality runs rampant; it just finds new ways.

At least there are movements like Black Lives Matter for African-Americans. What do Middle Eastern-Americans have? Who is protesting on their behalf?

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The racialization of Middle Eastern people began long before 9/11, very much through popular culture. They have been portrayed as barbaric, implying the superior civilization of Western culture when compared with the “savage” Orient. (Think, Aladdin!) patriot-act

After 9/11, Middle Eastern-Americans were rapidly and radically racialized and are facing increasing hostility.While the Patriot Act expired last year, the damage has already been done. Racial profiling is supported by many Americans – an means to a “justified” end.


“Much like the impact of entertainment media, American news broadcasts impact public opinion, and not so implicitly.  Only a handful of companies own all the media in the U.S. Each brand works to cater to its audiences, often foregoing actual news reporting for news analysis and commentary.  Most noticeably, Fox News panders to the Republican party while CNN is considered to be more Democratic. The way these organizations talk about Middle Eastern people intensely affects racial division in the U.S. through the sensationalization of American nationalism against terrorists and the misrepresentation of terrorists as Islamic rather than as radical fundamentalists. No less than fifty-five percent of Middle Eastern-Americans are Christian, anyway, yet Muslim has become synonymous with Arabic.

One study looked at talk shows from both Fox News and CNN and found negative depictions of Muslims in every show analyzed including Larry King Live and Fox News Sunday.  According to the study, the talk shows framed Muslims as a threat to western “civilization.” This frames Middle Eastern people as Muslim and Muslims as anti-American.  Forty-two percent of the time, Arabs were brought up in the context of the war on terror.  Middle Eastern countries like Pakistan were discussed as threats to “world peace that it’s now terrorist central” (Pervez & Saeed, 2010).  Further, the news talk shows presented completely inaccurate portrayals of the teachings of Islam. As the general public trusts their chosen networks, the People accept false truths as fact and perpetuate misunderstood interpretations of Islam, additionally implicating Arab- and Muslim-Americans as threats to the American way of life.

Presently, the race for the Presidency is unveiling the true colors of the American constituency, especially as it pertains to presidential candidate and former reality TV star Donald Trump.  Throughout the campaign trail, Trump has repeatedly pinned the American people against Middle Eastern and Muslim people.  He’s blatantly advocated for the killing of the loved ones of terrorists, the return of waterboarding suspects, the banning of Muslims from entering the country and the closing and surveillance of American mosques.  As for the banning of Muslims traveling to the U.S., a March poll illustrates fifty percent of American voters support Trump’s plan (Wong, 2016).

The political…rhetoric in the U.S. pins Middle Easterners as America-hating enemies who want nothing more than to harm the “infidels.”  While it is directed at foreign Arabic people and Middle Eastern countries, many Americans who subscribe to the views of political candidates like Trump apply this hate speech to American citizens who fit the popularized physical description of a terrorist.” (DeNardo, 2016)


All the things that create our social reality, such as television, movies, education, news media, lawmakers and more, have a responsibility in this process as well as to reverse it – deconstruct the racial reality. We cannot stand by and allow innocent people to be harassed, innovative 14-year-old boys to be arrested and the like.

death_to_all_arabsWith ISIS/L and the global tensions from the organization’s desire to dominate, there is no wonder there is fear.  However, racism as a reaction to fear does not need to be permanent.

We must:

  • reform the news media
  • facilitate political organization
  • hold authorities accountable
  • dismantle stereotypes
  • highlight the achievements of Middle Eastern-Americans
  • admit there is a problem
  • be better

 

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Beyond Decomposition: The use of ‘body farms’ in research

Imagine this: You are a scientist at a University that has finally approved your request to do outdoor forensic research using real human remains. The first few unclaimed bodies are shipped to you, a present from the local morgue.

You take each body and set them under certain conditions. One is put head first into a body of water, legs resting on land. Another is secured under a cage in direct sunlight, free from disturbances from animals. The last one is nude and covered with shrubbery and dark plastic.

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Every day, you check on the bodies to see how the decomposition is being affected by the varying conditions. You stick with your research through the bloating and all. The smell of rotting human flesh has become almost normal.

Sounds like a job for a character in a horror movie, right?

Since 1981, this has been a very real scenario for forensic anthropology faculty and students. The first outdoor research center for forensic taphonomic processes was opened by anthropologist Dr. William Bass at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.

Today in the U.S., there are six operational facilities:

Colloquially, these facilities are referred to as body farms, although some view the term as disrespectful.

“People like me intended no irreverence when we called it that, for no one respects the dead more than those of us who work with them and hear their silent stories.  The purpose is to help the living. That was the point when The Body Farm came into being more than twenty years before, when scientists got determined to learn more about time of death.  On any given day its several wooded acres held dozens of bodies in varying stages of decomposition. Research projects had brought me here periodically over the years, and though I would never be perfect in determining time of death, I had gotten better.” -Patricia Cornwell, The Body Farm (1994)

Not only do Cornwell’s words address the issue of respect toward the dead, they als0 provide an example of the importance of these research facilities in improving forensic skill.

The research done at body farms in becoming increasingly essential to the furthering of knowledge about different rates of decomposition, insect activity and animal scavenging. Projects can range from how climate and environment affect decomposition to how bodies react to being frozen.

The data from such research an assist forensic experts in real-life investigations in establishing traits like postmortem interval, or the time that’s passed since a person’s death. Body farms also serve other functions such as training centers for forensic anthropology students, law enforcement and cadaver dogs.

So far, the only body farms are located within the U.S.The problem with this is the research tends to be climate-specific. U.S. states and countries without body farms don’t have the taphonomic data for their region. This is why it is so important for the public in other countries to be educated about forensic research, to garner support for the building of such facilities abroad.

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Australia, near the new facility. (Original Source)

The first one outside of the U.S. will most likely be located in Australia at the University of Technology, Syndey. The Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research, as it will be called, will be the first step in catching up other parts of the world with this type of forensic advancement.

The United Kingdom is also behind with forensic anthropological research. In the UK, pigs are being used in taphonomic pursuits. Unfortunately, the variability of humans makes the research on pigs less meaningful or applicable.

The UK is in need of a outdoor human body farm – but there are a lot of obstacles before that can happen. Citizens are expressing concern about where human research facilities will be located and how it will affect them. There isn’t the same opportunity for isolation of a facility there as in the States. Then, there’s funding and obtaining the bodies.

Who knows when these obstacles will be overcome? Until the conditions are met and the UK and other countries can move forward in this process, the potential to expand the breadth of scientific research for the sake of research as well as for application in medicolegal cases is at a halt.

 

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What’s new in facial reconstruction?

At times, forensic investigators have a hard enough time identifying human remains with most of the flesh present. So what happens when the body is mostly or fully skeletonized?

A forensic artist uses the skull and scientific parameters to reconstruct the face of the individual. This is used to compare with missing persons and try to identify them. Since the discipline began, drawings and models using the skull have been used in the process, and there are problems with these practices.

The biggest problem is the subjectivity of the forensic artists, which can also lead to unidentified individuals never being identified because some features can’t be measured osteologically.

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A facial reconstruction of Gail Matthews, a victim of the Green River Killer. Her lips were unique and unable to be properly estimated due to decomposition.

3D printing is transforming forensic science and biological anthropology and for the better. Scientists use CT and MRI scans as well as other medical imaging techniques. Using this data, they are able to produce 3D models of bones from a 3D printer. The anatomically correct models are able to show trauma on the bones.

Skeletal remains are not usually entered into evidence in a court of law because it is thought to be too disturbing. These models eliminate the traumatic experience of seeing the dead person’s actual remains. To handle bones in the courtroom can cause degradation to them, destroying evidence. With 3D printing, this doesn’t happen.

This new technology is still being developed and perfected by scientists every day. The future will see increasing applications of forensically applied medical procedures. These applications will become standardized and more accurate over time, eliminating most of the subjectivity that compromises some cases.

 

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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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