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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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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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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