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Beyond Borders: UIndy Forensics in South Texas

Follow the daily triumphs and challenges of Dr. Krista Latham of the University of Indianapolis and her students as they lend their science expertise to a grueling but rewarding humanitarian initiative on the U.S.-Mexico border.

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2016 — Under the guidance of Dr. Krista Latham, associate professor of biology and anthropology, the UIndy forensic crew will volunteer May 8-13 at Texas State University in San Marcos, TX. While at Texas State they will be working with Dr. Kate Spradley and her student volunteers on the analysis of unidentified individuals exhumed from Sacred Heart Cemetery during the 2013 and 2014 archeological field seasons. On May 14 they will be participating in the 2nd Annual Missing in Harris County Day event in Houston, TX.  They will then travel to rural Brooks County, Texas, to volunteer with the South Texas Human Rights Center until May 18.

2015 — Under the guidance of Dr. Krista Latham, associate professor of biology and anthropology, the UIndy forensic crew will volunteer June 8-13 in rural Brooks County, Texas, working with the Brooks County Sheriff’s Department and the South Texas Human Rights Center.  Then they will be volunteering June 13-20 at Texas State University in San Marcos, TX. While at Texas State they will be working with Dr. Kate Spradley and her student volunteers on the analysis of unidentified individuals exhumed from Sacred Heart Cemetery during the 2013 and 2014 archeological field seasons.

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2014 — Under the guidance of Dr. Krista Latham, assistant professor of biology and anthropology, the UIndy forensic crew will volunteer June 1-12 in rural Brooks County, Texas, locating and exhuming the remains of undocumented migrants who died in the ranch land after crossing the border and were buried without identification in pauper graves.

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The phenomenon is playing out in border communities across the Southwest, where local officials often lack the resources to identify or even properly bury the remains. In Brooks County alone, more than 100 bodies or sets of skeletal remains are discovered each year.

“A lot of them are women and children who are just coming here for a better life,” says Latham, who calls the situation “a human-rights crisis.” Meanwhile, desperate relatives throughout Latin America and Asia are awaiting word on their missing loved ones.

This is a return trip for Latham and the four graduate students who began the work last summer: Jessica Campbell, Erica Christensen, Justin Maiers, and Ryan Strand, all pursuing master’s degrees in human biology.

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Amid oppressive heat, snakes, scorpions, and ever-present news cameras, they helped to reclaim the remains of more than 100 people from a cemetery in the small town of Falfurrias, in hopes that DNA testing will someday help identify the victims and bring peace to their families. The team also brought some remains back to UIndy’s Archeology & Forensics Laboratory, where they conducted skeletal analysis as a preliminary step in identification. (The university’s lab and expertise are well known to police and coroners throughout the Midwest, who often call for assistance when unidentified remains are found.)

This year, the work will be even more challenging, as the volunteers tackle a section of the cemetery where the burials are older and unmarked. Joining the UIndy crew this time is rookie Cheneta Morrison, who just earned her bachelor’s degree in biology. Also on the scene will be undergraduates from Baylor University, who will receive training and supervision by the UIndy students who are experienced in forensic archeology.

This project is part of a major initiative overseen by the International Consortium of Forensic Identification, whose members include Dr. Latham of UIndy, Dr. Lori Baker of Baylor University, and Dr. Kate Spradley of Texas State University.

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