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  • Forensic anthropologists play vital role in Medical Examiner’s Office

    Forensic anthropologists play vital role in Medical Examiner’s Office

    On a hot summer morning in the desert wilderness of southern Arizona, a man, probably in his 20s or 30s, falls to the ground, exhausted and dehydrated after walking through the night from the international border with Mexico. 

    As the sun rises higher in the sky and the temperature climbs to 100 degrees and beyond, the man clings to life. At some point, hyperthermia overtakes the man. His body overheats, unable to regulate its temperature. Multiple organ failures cascade through the man’s body. He soon slips into unconsciousness and dies. 

    By the numbers

    Total remains recovered 2000-2018: 2,943
    Age of deceased: 
    20-29 – 680
    30-39 – 607
    40-49 – 296
    13-19 – 210 
    50-59 – 84
    60-69 – 14
    Unknown – 1,042
    Sex of deceased 
    Male – 84 percent
    Female – 16 percent
    Number of deceased identified: 1,893 
    It may be days, months or even years before his body is recovered. When he’s eventually found his remains are sent to the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner, which over the years has analyzed the remains of more than 3,000 people who similarly perished in the unforgiving deserts, mountains and grasslands of southern Arizona.

    “We are a little unique,” said Dr. Greg Hess, Pima County Medical Examiner. 

    He explains that the office he leads not only conducts standard post mortem examinations on a daily basis, but also handles more cases of unidentified remains than almost any other region in the country. At times, the office may receive the unidentified remains of more than 200 people per year, the majority of whom died attempting to cross the border on foot. 

    This presents a monumental task for the County. 

    “How do you identify who they were?” Hess asked. For the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office, that requires the work of forensic anthropologists. 

    Pima County has two full-time forensic anthropologists and a post-doctoral fellow on staff. Much of the work these scientists do involves attempting to identify those undocumented migrants who died while attempting to come to the United States. 

    “We’ve only identified about two-thirds of them,” said Bruce Anderson, a forensic anthropologist who has worked for the Medical Examiner’s Office for nearly 20 years. 
    Dr. Bruce Anderson
    The office uses many techniques attempting to identify the remains of those who are brought to Pima County, Anderson explained. 

    The scientists can analyze the teeth of the deceased, checking for evidence of past dental work that could be traced and used to identify them. In addition, any visible tattoos, scars, moles and other physical features are catalogued. 

    DNA analysis also is used to identify the dead. Anderson said partnerships the office has with nongovernmental organizations like the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team and the Colibri Center for Human Rights have been particularly helpful in that regard. 

    Working with Pima County, these organizations have contributed to a DNA database of samples collected from deceased migrants found in southern Arizona. The groups then work with relatives who reach out in search of their missing loved ones. By gathering DNA samples from relatives, the Medical Examiner’s Office can identify the dead. 

    Since 2000, nearly 400 people have been identified through DNA analysis. Overall, the office has been able to identify about 1,900 people whose remains were found in wilderness areas. 

    Anderson said the county began to see an increase in the frequency of human remains found in the rural areas beginning about 2000. The office and nonprofit partners such as No More Deaths have since attributed the increase to changes in federal enforcement at the border. 
    Dr. Greg Hess
    Prior to 2000, the majority of undocumented crossings occurred in populated areas like San Diego or El Paso. Federal enforcement efforts were concentrated in those areas in an effort to stem the tide of illegal immigration. At the time, most authorities assumed the harshness of the climate and remoteness of the landscape of Arizona would act as a deterrent for migrants. 

    But the deterrent didn’t work. In 2000, Pima County recovered the remains of 74 people. By 2010, the number had swollen to 222. 

    Anderson described a recent case where an identification was made after nearly 15 years. 

    The 18-year-old daughter of man who went missing in 2002 contacted the Medical Examiner’s Office hoping someone could help them learn the fate of her father. 

    “She was just four years old when her father went missing,” Anderson said. 

    Anderson said the man had false Mexican identification and other items on him when he was found. While the document, a birth certificate, was false it bore the man’s real name. 

    Using the name and later DNA samples from his daughter, the office was able to positively identify the man. While the outcome remains tragic, the years of wondering could finally end for the family, who now knew their loved one’s fate. 

    “It’s one of the few things that’s rewarding about dealing with death,” Anderson said. 

    Photos: (Top: Forensic Anthropologist Dr. Bruce Anderson; Bottom: Medican Examiner Dr. Greg Hess)

    Pima County Office of Medical Examiner

    • Located on the Abrams Public Health Center Campus • 2825 E. District Street
    • The Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner investigates any death in Pima County that is sudden, violent, unexpected, or in which the cause of death is unknown. The PCOME also serves as the Medical Examiner (ME) for Cochise and Santa Cruz Counties and performs examinations as needed for eight additional counties. The office is fully accredited by the National Association of Medical Examiners, one of just 82 such fully accredited medical examiners offices in the United States.
    • 33 employees
    • 3,280 cases handled in 2018
    • 2,774 Pima County cases in 2018
    • 506 Cases referred from other counties in 2018
    • 1,260 autopsies performed in 2018
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