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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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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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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Giving Families Closure

Forensic anthropology and archaeology isn’t all it’s cracked up to be in popular culture. There isn’t usually a huge lab with all the best equipment and the ability to tell sex, ancestry or age at the quick glance of a stapes.

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The lab at the Jeffersonian on Bones.

However, what the TV does get right is the ultimate pay-off of these forensic investigations: justice and closure.

In modern forensic contexts, archaeologists are usually under a time-crunch. They twist into yoga-like positions to carefully excavate the remains of the individual. They keep digging, whether or not it’s raining or 103 degrees. Then, the forensic anthropologist analyzes the remains, also with a time-sensitive awareness, and tries to make an identification, sometimes sending teeth or other DNA-containing matter to the FBI for testing.

It hasn’t always been this way. Before these current forensic techniques were developed, many individuals went unidentified.

That’s exactly what happened to Kristyne Olivia Trejo, a mother of two from Santa Ana, California, whose remains were interred in San Bernardino in 1989, almost a year after her disappearance.

The last time they saw their mother, Tina Marie Costa was 5 years old and her brother Andrew Trejo was 10 years old. In this emotional video from NBC Los Angeles, the pair speaks out about this experience.

“It’s been hard for me waiting for all these years, hoping that one day I’d get home and just see her there. There was an empty part of me that only she could fill.” -Trejo

After 28 years of wondering what happened to her, most of their questions have been answered. A sample from Kristyne Trejo’s remains was taken about a decade ago for modern DNA testing. It was matched when those with missing family members were invited to sumbit their own DNA samples at the Orange County Sheriff Department’s “ID the Missing” event in October 2015.

“At least, we can lay her down to rest — that’s my closure.” -Costa

The overall sentiment is the relief of knowing what happened to their mother and having her returned to the family to be given a proper burial. Though the question of who committed this act against Kristyne Trejo may never be answered, the family feels reassured she is watching over them.

This is the power of forensic anthropology. This is the pay-off. As long as there are murderers, there will always be cases like this. But as long as there are forensic anthropologists, there will always be grief-stricken families given the right to mend.

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