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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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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(Original Source of Photos)


 

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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Anthropology in the news

When I tell people I am a double major in journalism and anthropology, the first two questions I am usually asked are, “What exactly does an anthropologist do?” and “How did you decide to do those two majors?”

The first question isn’t answerable in a small-talk setting, but I settle on the definition that anthropologists study what it means to be human. To answer the second question, I’ve always loved news and writing, but I wanted to be a forensic anthropologist. I knew the chances of becoming one were minuscule, so I figured I could do science journalism if all else failed.

At this point, I am usually asked if there is a “big calling for that.” People just don’t know that anthropology is going on around us all the time, including in forensic contexts.

So whether I favor my journalism degree or my anthropology degree, there’s always something to do if you know where to look. And, while there is plenty to see, a lot of journalists have flaws in reporting on the subject.

For instance, here is a story from Feb. 17.

Mercyhurst Univeristy’s Dr. Dennis Dirkmaat, who examined human remains on February 7, announced his belief that it is the body of Patsy Hudson who has been missing since July.

The article reads “The professor and his team of Forensic and Biological Anthropology Master’s students are working to prove that suspicion.”

My problem with this sentence is it makes it sound like they know without a doubt who the woman is and are working to prove that when they should be working to identify the body without bias.

To be clear, I’m in no way doubting Dirkmaat’s motivations seeing as he has taken part in more than 300 cases and teaches this for a living. It’s a criticism of how the media handles these stories. The reporter also chose to use the word “race” where it should say “ancestry,” which is a changing concept in forensic anthropology.

What makes this story unique, however, was handled very well. The case was brought to Dirkmaat by police and he was able to help locate the remains within days.

In addition to the newly dead, cold cases are often the job of the forensic anthropologist. Recently, Anthony Falsetti and his students at Arizona State University analyzed remains of a case from the 1980s.

The reporter in this case, Nico Santos, hit the nail on the head with how he presented the details.

“Since 1984, a lot has changed,” explained Falsetti. “In our science and anthropology, we’ve changed. We’ve gotten more accurate in our estimations in age and sex and ancestry, as well as other technologies … obviously DNA.”

The professor and his students used new technology to take a fresh look at the case with the goal of identifying the victim and bringing her killer to justice.

“Someday she’ll have her own name back,” said Dr. Falsetti.

There was also a story about the Tim Bosma trial. Dr. Tracy Rogers is the anthropologist who helped identify Tim Bosma. It is suspected Bosma was murdered by two men. His bones were found inside an incinerator on a farm in Ontario. Rogers testified in court that an arm bone found at the scene was burned at a high temp.

This story was straight forward and a little dry, but I like it for that reason. It shows the other responsibilities and significance of the forensic anthropologist.

Besides pressing cases such as these, anthropology is discussed in terms of academic programming, public exhibits and professional conferences all the time.

Every week, anthropologists are doing important work for both past and present individuals and for humanity as a whole.

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