Forensic Anthropology Law Enforcement Skeletal Biology

Jessica Gutierrez, the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State

During the fall of 2013, I participated in an internship with the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State.  FACTS is a multidimensional forensic anthropological research, teaching, and outreach center within the Department of Anthropology at Texas State University. FACTS is composed of three components, including two labs and an outdoor decomposition facility.  The mission of FACTS is to advance forensic science and anthropology through world-class education, research, and outreach. FACTS strives to be a premier nationally and internationally recognized academic training and research facility for forensic anthropology, providing a unique environment that stimulates innovative, creative, and interdisciplinary research that advances forensic anthropology knowledge, theory, and methods.

FACTS conducts research on human decomposition to determine the postmortem interval, which includes a wide range or various research designs. A majority of the individuals who willingly donate their body to FACTS are placed at FARF on Freeman Ranch and left to the elements to decompose.  A majority of the donations are placed under large tarps and metal cages covered in chicken wire to deter any scavenging animals, especially raccoon and vultures, from disturbing the bodies’ rate of decomposition. There are, however, some donations that are left uncovered to study any vulture activity and scattering of skeletal elements. Equipment for aquatic decomposition is also available for study. Many donations are also buried for research and training purposes for law enforcement.

In addition, FACTS offers several key resources for assisting law enforcement whenever human remains are found. First, when skeletal remains are found, regardless of manner or condition in which they are found, a Forensic Anthropologist is almost always  consulted for examination and development of the biological profile. The profile developed is vital for law enforcement in order to narrow down any missing persons to be compared with the remains found. Second, FACTS is equipped with many tools used to extract bone samples to be sent to the University of North Texas’ human identification laboratory for the development of a full DNA profile to definitively identify unknown remains. Forensic Anthropologists play a dynamic role in the identification process of unknown individuals due to their unique skills in reading skeletal material and their training in archaeological excavations. Finally, FACTS also serves as an additional resource for law enforcement often assisting in or directing the excavation of possible burial sites in forensic cases or ground searches for a missing person.

While interning at FACTS, I spent a majority of my time at Freeman Ranch, both at FARF and ORPL. While there, I had the opportunity to learn and perform a variety of tasks, including the intake and placement of donations, photo inventories, disarticulations, processing of remains, labeling, and a variety of other miscellaneous tasks. The following sections describe each of these activities in more detail.

One of the main duties of an intern or undergraduate volunteer is the processing of decomposed and skeletonized human remains for curation.This involves a process of hot water submersion with the addition of detergent to loosen tissues and help clean the bone, a process called ‘maceration’.  The bones are placed into a large kettle which is then filled with hot water and either 2 oz. of tergazyme or 4 oz. of laundry detergent.  Once the bones have macerated and little to no tissue is left, they are then individually cleaned using dental tools and tooth brushes.  Once this is done, the bone is then placed on butcher paper and laid out in anatomical position to dry. Once the bones are completely dry, they can then be curated and labeled.

FACTS assisted on approximately ten to fifteen open forensic cases also known as OpID’s (Operation Identification) of unidentified remains this past fall semester. On average, twenty to thirty unidentified bodies are brought to the facility. All of which are almost always believed to be of Hispanic descent, ranging in age and sex.  In accordance to the title 1 code of criminal procedure, chapter 49 inquests upon dead bodies, subchapter A. duties performed by justices of the peace states that a justice of the peace shall conduct an inquest into the death of a person who dies in the county served by the justice if: the body or a body part of a person is found, the cause or circumstances of death are unknown; the person is unidentified; etc. If an examination has been performed by a justice of the peace, the body is either buried or given to FACTS. OpID bodies are then processed and entered into FACTS’ forensic database. The information is then given to forensic anthropologists who try to determine a biological profile for the individual so that a positive identification can be made. On occasion, additional resources will be used when trying to make a positive identification such as DNA analysis which is conducted at the University of North Texas or the assistance of facial reconstructions will be used.

During my last month with FACTS, I had the opportunity to work on a number of OpID’s. When an OpID body is given to FACTS it is taken directly to OPRAL and inventoried. This part of the internship was perhaps the most difficult because by the time the remains are at FACTS, they have either mummified or more typically started to decompose. This makes the removal of the body from the body bag almost impossible to do without disarticulating it and because the body has already started to decompose the smell is extremely strong and pungent.

Part of the studying of the rate of decomposition involves the daily photographing of each body to document the decomposition process. While at FACTS, I got the opportunity to assist with this task. A series of photographs, including the face, upper limbs, lower limbs, overall body and stake shots , are taken each day for two weeks; every other day for two weeks; and then once a week for two months.

FACTS provides academic functions for students, law enforcement, and the field of forensic anthropology. FACTS serves as a resource for the identification of unidentified skeletal remains and as a training facility for law enforcement cadaver dogs. FACTS additionally indirectly aids law enforcement with the establishment of a known biological profile database used to help establish a biological profile.

While interning at FACTS, I have had the opportunity to gain a wealth of knowledge I would not have gotten had I interned elsewhere. I have had the opportunity to work hands on with the many different stages of human decomposition and curation processes. I was even given the opportunity to work on not one, but various open forensic cases and meet a world renown facial reconstructionist. Since interning with FACTS, I have become extremely proficient in the siding and identification of each bone within the human skeleton. Additionally, I have learned and practiced methods for developing the biological profile. I have since learned and met the standards for labeling and inventorying skeletal remains, as well as, the standards for data entry and cataloging of remains.I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to have interned with FACTS and to have met and made connections with the individuals that I have.  I take away from this internship a wealth of knowledge and hands on experience I know I would have not otherwise acquired had I interned elsewhere.

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