The Unknowns

We are approaching the 20th anniversary of a spike in illegal immigrant remains found in the southern Arizona desert. Today, we look at a special effort to identify them also entering its 20th year. Dr. Greg Hess has led the effort for the past dozen or so years. He’s a forensic pathologist and chief medical examiner for Pima County in Tucson, Arizona.

Dr. Hess: This is an example of a skeletal remains that you knew we’d find out in the environment that we’ve been talking about. And the only property that we found with the remains is, these pair of shoes, right? 

Sharyl: When did this come in?

Dr. Hess: This came in this year. Probably about two months ago. 

Sharyl: Is there a way to know if it’s a man or a woman by looking at the bones? 

Dr. Hess: Yeah, so essentially the pelvis, this is one of the pelvic bones. So the shape of the pelvis will tell us about 99% of the time if it’s a man or woman. This looks very much like a man. DNA will tell us 100% of the time, once we get that result back if the person has a Y chromosome or not. 

Dr. Hess: Most of the people over here are unidentified, that tag is unidentified, so anything that says John or Jane or unidentified. Hess: We’re in the room where we keep some of the property. So this is an example of the stuff that we would keep in the sleeves, right? We know the person was found in 2019, because the number starts with that. And then stuff like identification cards, and money, and things that may or may not be distinctive. Remember we talked about distinctive property items- 

Sharyl: The belt buckle? 

Dr. Hess: Yeah, we would have them here. So this is a belt buckle with two kind of crossed guns on it and it’s sort of has some scroll work done to it. So somebody might know this is so and so’s favorite belt buckle, right? And that’s just one. I mean you can thumb through here and see some of these we have identification cards for, rings, this wallet. Another one, here was a cell phone that we probably sent to the sheriff’s department to see if they could retrieve information from it. Here’s a little kind of this weathered book of some kind. Maybe it looks like a little bible or something. It was found with these remains.

Dr. Hess: So in the 1990s we would have a few every year where we would find remains in a desert area and we believed it to be somebody that’s from Mexico or Central America and they died in the attempt to enter the United States without permission from the government to do so. And then in the year 2000 that really jumped up about five fold from again about an average of 15 a year to 70 some a year. And then in 2002 it was 146. And then to just kind of summarize 2002 through the end of last year, 2018, we average about 150 a year. So we recovered 127 remains last year in 2018 and 90 so far year to date in 2019. 

Sharyl: There’s a little more complication with figuring out sometimes who these people are than normal because if you find a wallet and an ID on that person, I guess you can’t just assume that’s who they are. 

Dr. Hess: No, people travel with false identifications or they may have an incentive to use someone else’s name, even if it’s their photo. A whole host of reasons why people may not use the correct ID or some type of identification. 

Sharyl: What are some typical causes of death that you find? 

Dr. Hess: Really, it’s exposure. So we would lump being too hot, potentially being too cold, and dehydration, which could come in both of those cases into that category. 

Sharyl: Do you find people who have been murdered? Shot?

Dr. Hess: Yeah, we do. It’s not very common. I think it’s about 3% of the total number of remains that we’ve examined. We’re close to 3000 remains since the year 2000 of this group of people. So it’s not common but yes, sometimes people do get shot.

Sharyl: Looking back when this spike started in 2000, what could you say has been learned through this effort? 

Dr. Hess: The way you document where people are located and where they’re found has changed. You know, GPS is very prevalent now. And so if you look at some of our old location data of where remains are found, it would just be a mile post on the road. But we know that that wasn’t exactly where those remains came from. Like everybody has a cell phone now, so even if you find remains of somebody you believe to be a migrant, there’s often evidence that they had some type of electronic device with them, a charging cord or a cell phone that we can now try to get information from that phone to help figure out who they are or that wasn’t there when this started so some of those things have changed. 

Sharyl: You’re a scientific guy, you’re fairly non-emotional when you describe these things. But on a human level, what are some of your reflections having worked in this effort for 12 13 years?

Dr. Hess: Really, kind of the emotional aspect is when you do identify someone and you are in contact with family members and they are usually quite grateful that some kind of resolution has been reached in regards to, you know, somebody they may have been looking for for a long time. 

Sharyl: If there comes a day in the next 10 years and you’re still here and the number of remains found goes way back down again, maybe a handful instead of 150, what would you think about that? 

Dr. Hess: Well, kind of the end of a period of time, right? So I’m sure people will look at this aspect of this wave of migration from Mexico and Central America and it certainly won’t last forever, right? So if you look back in time, it was waves of people from Europe coming to the United States and now it’s not quite that way. So will it be replaced by something else? And how will that look? I’m sure people will write about it in the future and just to declare that period over.

Hess’s office works with third parties and nonprofits to help connect to family members to see if their loved one has been found.

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