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Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s Office seeks funding to put names to long-unidentified people

The exterior of the Tarrant County Courthouse, a large red sandstone building with columns, large windows and a round tower up top.
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The medical examiner's office in Tarrant County hopes a $400,000 grant from the federal government’s Missing and Unidentified Human Remains Program will help to identify bodies that remain unidentified.

The Tarrant County Medical Examiner's office is applying for a federal grant to help them do more forensic genetic genealogical analysis to identify people that remain unidentified, in some cases for years.

Forensic genetic genealogical analysis is a newer technology that’s gained traction in recent years. Even though the method has been used to find suspects in decades-old cold cases, like the so-called “Golden State Killer” in California, or the killing of Mary Hague Kelly in Dallas, the Tarrant County Medical Examiner's Office wants to use it to identify human remains that have been in the county's care for years.

The county is asking for about $400,000 from the federal government’s Missing and Unidentified Human Remains Program.

If the county wins the grant, it will send out DNA samples to private labs that will compare them to publicly available genetic genealogy databases, to find relatives of unidentified people and figure out their identities from within a family tree.

"That we identify some of these really difficult cases that we've worked on from year to year and give those loved ones back to their family members, that’s the primary goal of this," said Christian Crowder, the chief of the Human Identification and Anthropology Laboratories at the Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s Office.

The Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s Office has sent samples out for forensic genetic genealogy testing before, but it must be done by outside labs, and it’s expensive, Crowder said.

The grant would allow the Medical Examiner’s Office to pick 15 cases and send them out for testing, according to county documents. The focus would be on cases involving unidentified minors or homicides – high priority cases, Crowder said.

"For us, the main goal is to develop this tentative next of kin, because once we get a potential next of kin for an individual, then we can start building the identification,” he said.

Bodies end up at the Medical Examiner’s Office when someone’s death requires an investigation, whether they died due to suicide, homicide or under unknown circumstances. When human remains come in unidentified, Crowder’s lab determines who those people were.

Crowder’s lab receives about 900 cases a year whose identities are unknown, he said, and about 90% of those people are identified through fingerprinting.

When that's not possible, Crowder's lab can also use dental records, visual identification, DNA sampling, or a combination of methods. With all those tools at their disposal, less than 1% of those people end up in the long-term unidentified category, he said.

Sometimes the Medical Examiner’s Office has a potential family member who can provide a sample of their own DNA for comparison with the unidentified remains, but not always, Crowder said. They can enter DNA samples into federal databases to try to find a match, but that can be a matter of luck.

Forensic genetic genealogy is another avenue to take for that small group that goes unidentified.

"What this does is it provides a broader net,” Crowder said. “Maybe a less focused net, but a broader net to seek out other potential individuals that may be related to the decedent."

When Crowder’s lab can’t identify someone, the county keeps the remains, sending them to county burial or holding skeletal remains in the lab.

“As our methods update and become better, technology improves, we can sort of reinvestigate some of these skeletal cases, which tend to be the more challenging cases," Crowder said.

The Medical Examiner’s office would also use this federal grant funding to revisit some of those old cases. The money would be used to exhume remains of people who may have died before DNA technology was widespread, to give them another chance at identification. The money will be used to hire a new death investigator, who will focus on deep investigations into next of kin or records that might help identify someone.

Some of these cases have been passed down in the Medical Examiner’s Office for years. Former employees leave behind extensive notes for their successors, and even call to check in on old cases, Crowder said.

"There’s no one else out there who's going to do it except for us,” he said. “And it's that ownership that we have to take of these people who don't have a voice and we need to speak for."

Got a tip? Email Miranda Suarez at msuarez@kera.org. You can follow Miranda on Twitter @MirandaRSuarez.

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Miranda Suarez is KERA’s Fort Worth reporter. Before coming to North Texas, she was the Lee Ester News Fellow at Wisconsin Public Radio, where she covered statewide news from the capital city of Madison. Miranda is originally from Massachusetts and started her public radio career at WBUR in Boston.