In the deep south of Brooks County, Texas, forensic anthropologist Dr. Krista Latham and her team of students from the University of Indianapolis organized and led students from Baylor University on an excavation dig. The students came from a variety of academic backgrounds and had no forensic experience. UIndy’s team taught their college volunteers about the basics of forensic digging techniques to ensure the preservation of their projects.
The work appeared to use techniques from yesteryear, perhaps more like the movie set of Indiana Jones than the 21st Century. Students used small tools and their hands to dig in the dry earth, keeping an eye out for snakes, scorpions, spiders and fire ants. The hours were long, the temperatures were hot, and the work exhausting.
However, unlike a movie set, there were no bad guys to chase, yet there were tragic tales to uncover below the Earth’s surface: the remains of unauthorized immigrants buried haphazardly in Sacred Heart Cemetery in Falfurrias, Texas.
It’s a project Latham joined in 2013 at the request of friend and colleague Dr. Lori Baker from Baylor University. Their work, along with Dr. Kate Spradley of Texas State University, is a major initiative of the International Consortium of Forensic Identification’s “Reuniting Families” Project. The goal of the project is to restore human dignity to immigrants who have died along the Mexico-U.S. border by identifying them and reuniting their remains with their families. The first step in the process is exhuming those immigrants from where they rest.
Dr. Latham is an expert in the field of forensic anthropology — she’s Indiana’s very own “Bones.” She was even asked by a prospective student what was different about what she does compared to the Fox television character portrayed by Emily Deschanel.
“I don’t have an FBI partner, I don’t have a fancy lab in the Smithsonian, and it takes longer than an hour to solve my cases,” jokes Latham, recapping her response to the inquiring email.
But the concept is still the same. She works with human remains and uses forensic science to determine who they were and how they died. Most of the time her work focuses on crime scenes in Indiana and the Midwest, helping law enforcement and the county coroner identify remains and causes of death. However, for the last two summers, Latham has lent her expertise to a more humanitarian cause.
Brooks County, Texas is one of the eight counties that make up the Lower Rio Grande Valley, the most southern portion of the state. Located approximately 70 miles from the Mexican border, Brooks County has its share of immigrant issues ranging from home invasions as immigrants desperately search for food and water to a high number of deaths as those immigrants succumb to the brutal elements. The median income for a family is just under $22,500 and the per capita income for the county is just over $10,200. Forty percent of the residents live below the poverty level.
Ironically, Brooks County tends to be a Democratic area in a state known to be a Republican stronghold. Brooks County has never voted for a Republican presidential candidate since the county was created in 1911. In the 2012 general election, over 78 percent of Brooks County voters cast their ballots for President Obama compared to the 21 percent who voted for the Republican candidate, Mitt Romney.
Brooks County has no coroner. The number of law enforcement officers is small and resources are severely limited. Most of the county’s acreage is private ranch land. Typically, if someone found a person deceased on their property, one of three options were selected. Sometimes the body would be wrapped up and taken to Sacred Heart Cemetery in Falfurrias. Other times the body was buried right where it was found. And sometimes the body was never found or simply left to rot where it lay.
Latham says the remains in Sacred Heart are not buried with any type of organization. Sometimes remains are found only four inches beneath the surface while others could be as deep as four feet. Shared graves are also dug if more than one person is found on any given day.
“Most of the time these remains are left in body bags or wrapped in plastic in shallow, unmarked graves,” says Latham. “We use the same standards established in Indiana for working with these remains so that everything is uniform and the remains are handled with dignity and respect.”