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Last of Brooks County exhumations now at Texas State University

Operation ID takes on daunting task of identifying remains

NEAR SAN MARCOS, Texas – What are believed to be the last of the unidentified remains exhumed from Sacred Heart Cemetery in Falfurrias are now at the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State University, their official repository since last year.

Tim Gocha, a postdoctoral research fellow who is helping oversee the skeletal and DNA analysis, said the total stands at 230 sets of remains. He said most of them didn’t survive the treacherous crossing through Brooks County.

Gocha said although only about 10 percent of the remains have been identified, more than half were identified in the past year alone.

He said the longer they’re at it, “We start to understand the problem better.”

Gocha said in 2013, the center, under the direction of Dr. Kate Spradley, was assisting Dr. Lori Baker, also a forensic anthropologist at Baylor University, in what became known as Operation Identification.

Baker’s students were the first to exhume the unidentified remains that were then taken to Texas State for processing.

Gocha said after remains are received at the Center for Forensic Anthropology, they are cleaned of any flesh or soft tissue that may be obscuring skeletal markers indicative of their age, general health and other factors. He said then comes a biological profile detailing their gender, height, age at the time of death and ancestral background.

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Gocha said they also submit DNA samples, as required by law, to the University of North Texas.

“It’s not just a simple path of, we analyze each case the same way, take it through the same steps,” Gocha said.

He said it’s a daunting task.

“Finding family members is absolutely tricky,” Gocha said.

In order to collect crucial familial DNA samples from a federal database, Gocha said law enforcement in the U.S. must be present.  He said that’s hard to do when family members are in the U.S. illegally or in another country.

“It’s a good system, but it wasn’t designed with an international crisis in mind,” Gocha said.

Instead, Gocha said the center reaches out to nongovernmental groups, such as the South Texas Human Rights Center in Falfurrias, and consulates to help contact family members. They also work with various labs that do DNA analysis.

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But as far as a single databank of missing migrants, Gocha said it simply doesn’t exist.

Spradley said Thursday that the Forensic Anthropology Center had only received partial funding from a private foundation to continue its work.

“It’s going to be hard to keep our efforts going if we don’t get funding soon,” Spradley said.