Bexar County medical examiner works to name unidentified bodies

SAN ANTONIO – The Bexar County Medical Examiner’s office is often tasked with putting together the puzzles for families and law enforcement officers finding the causes of death for people or identifying bodies discovered.

Dr. Randall Frost, Bexar County chief medical examiner, says in most cases, the bodies are already identified, and for those which are not, if fingerprints are available, they can be compared to those in a government system. 

If dental records are available and there’s some indication of who the person might be, they can be compared with those post-mortem. 

Sometimes there’s only DNA, and those cases can be a bit more complex.

“If it's a total unknown, then it's a lot more difficult,” Frost said. “We can take samples of blood or tissue or bone and send those to the University of North Texas, where a DNA analysis can be done and put into a national database to see if that person can be matched with an unknown individual who's been reported missing.”

In about two to three cases a year, some bodies cannot be identified despite their best effort, Frost said.  

“We do the best we can, but there's no magic crystal ball,” he said. “We have to have information somewhere that allows us to match this individual we have up to a name or a family or something to let us figure out who they are.”

When the remains of the unknown are buried by the county in unmarked graves, their data is stored and kept in hopes that someday they can be identified and given to the next of kin.

Just recently the ME’s anthropologist report was used by an artist hired by law enforcement to put together a possible sketch of the body of a woman found badly burned in far west Bexar County. The woman has not yet been identified.

Frost said about 3,000 cases were examined by his office last year, the highest number ever for them. 

About 55 people work in the medical examiner’s office, which includes seven full-time staff doctors. The office is funded by the county.

Frost has been in the field for 22 years. He said he was attracted to the laboratory work.  

“I liked putting the puzzles together, and I just found it fascinating trying to determine why a living individual ceases to be living,” he said. “That was always a great mystery, and it's one that continues as long as you're in this field.”

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