Holly Bernstein

Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2018

Missing in Arizona: Searching for loved ones in bones and DNA

PHOENIX – It’s grim, heartbreaking and hopeful work.

Families bring medical records, photos, fingerprints and maybe their DNA.

Forensic scientists match them with jawbones and other skeletal remains, police sketches and dental records that put flesh on bones, trying to identify those who disappeared and, perhaps, died.

Teeth remains and dental records can be used to identify a missing person, according to forensic scientists. (Photo by Celisse Jones/Cronkite News)

Forensic experts and law-enforcement officials collect information from loved ones at Missing in Arizona day, an annual event. Officials last week previewed this week’s event, discussing the work of identifying of the missing while surrounded by tables topped with jawbones, skulls and other bones – remnants of more than 200 people missing in Maricopa County.

Officials from the Office of the Maricopa Medical Examiner said events over three years resolved 27 cases: 15 people were found alive and 12 had died. Last year, 48 new cases were processed with seven resolutions.

Families are encouraged to information about missing loved ones to this year’s event, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday at Arizona State University’s west campus. Experts will be on hand to take reports and gather information and identifiers from families of missing persons. DNA samples can be collected to help create a profile of the person.

Many of the missing remains are thought to be of migrants crossing over the Mexico border into the U.S.

“There’s very different situations in which we have to deal with our own feelings, our own emotions,” said Lilian Cordoba, a legal affairs consul for the Consulate General of Mexico. “But these cases where families are looking for somebody that crossed the desert and they don’t know what happened with them are probably the most difficult ones.

Laura Fulginiti, a forensic anthropologist, says her job “is to develop a biological profile including the sex of the individual, the age they died, the height of the person, and then anything unique or individual about them that will help us identify” a missing person. (Photo by Celisse Jones/Cronkite News)

“There’s no closure for many of these families,” said.

Cordoba’s team is notified when remains of a missing person are found and identified.

“At least they have a conclusion to their case, to their questions, and that gives them certain peace of mind,” she said.

Forensic anthropologist Laura Fulginiti said bones and other skeletal remains, police sketches and dental records that reveal crowns and fillings can help develop a profile of a missing person.

“My job is to develop a biological profile including the sex of the individual, the age they died, the height of the person, and then anything unique or individual about them that will help us identify them,” she said.

Phoenix Police maintain a website of missing persons , another move to track down people who disappear.

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