FALFURRIAS, Texas (AP) - On the second day of digging under the blazing South Texas sun, Eva Abernathy hit a crumbling coffin with her shovel. As it fell apart, the college student from Round Rock saw a body bag containing the bones of unidentified migrants who had died trying to cross illegally into the United States through the vast ranch lands of Brooks County.
Abernathy was one of nearly three-dozen students who volunteered this summer to help dig up the bodies buried at a cemetery in Falfurrias, the only city in the county.
This year, 54 bodies were found as part of the “Reuniting Families” project that seeks to identify the remains of migrants in unmarked graves at the cemetery and contact their relatives.
Associate anthropology professor Lori Baker of Baylor University started the project, which uses laboratories at Baylor as well as Texas State University to try to identify the bodies. The ones found this summer were buried between 2004 and 2009, Baker said.
Abernathy, 22 and a Baylor senior, said she paid $800 for room and board in Falfurrias for two weeks in June to help exhume the remains.
“The hardest part was seeing how people were treated after they were passed away,” Abernathy told the Austin American-Statesman (https://bit.ly/1wmhCVM ). “We found (the skeletal remains of) one person who had been put in a trash bag and then put in a shopping bag after that.”
Baker said that when 27 students from Baylor University - including Abernathy - and five students from the University of Indianapolis helped exhume bodies in June, temperatures were so hot that some students had to be treated at a hospital for heatstroke.
Baker and Texas State associate anthropology professor Kate Spradley said they have to rely on volunteers to get the work done since little grant money is available. The universities provide laboratories but don’t pay for any of the other costs.
“What we are dealing with is the equivalent of a mass disaster like a plane crash,” Spradley said. “But, if this were a plane crash, money from the state or federal government would be released to help identify the victims.”
Baker said she started the project in 2002 in Arizona but switched her focus to Texas in 2012 after she heard about the large number of migrant deaths in Brooks County. The first year her students did exhumations in the Sacred Heart Cemetery in Falfurrias in 2013, they found 69 unidentified bodies that had been buried from 2010 to 2012, she said.
Brooks County is about 70 miles from the Mexican border and lies along the path that migrants take to enter the United States, said Benny Martinez, a chief deputy with the sheriff’s office.
The 944-square-mile county has about 7,200 residents and thousands of acres of ranch land that migrants often wander onto to avoid a security checkpoint, Martinez said. What they don’t realize, he said, is that the soil is sandy, which makes it loose and difficult to walk on.
The sheriff’s office has had 415 migrant deaths reported since 2009, including 53 this year.
The bodies are usually found by ranchers or oilfield workers. Deputies pick up the remains, but the county doesn’t have the money or the time to try to identify anyone, Martinez said. He said the county sheriff’s four deputies had to take pay cuts and lost their health insurance when the county went bankrupt last year.
Before Baker started her project in Falfurrias in 2013, Martinez said, deputies gave the unidentified remains to a local mortuary, which buried them in the cemetery as far back as the 1970s.
Baker said the mortuary didn’t keep any records of the burials. “It’s a total mess out there,” she said.
Once her students exhume the bodies, she takes any skeletal remains to the Baylor laboratory in Waco. The bodies that are still decomposing are sent to Spradley’s lab at Texas State in San Marcos.
Texas State is well known for its “body farm,” where bodies are left in a field to decay so researchers can study decomposition. The remains of the migrants that are sent there, however, are stored outside but kept in body bags.
In Waco, Baker said she examines bones to determine age and ancestry, and then sends DNA samples to the University of North Texas to be placed into a national DNA database. She also enters information about the remains into the Texas DPS missing persons clearinghouse.
Most of the migrants buried at Sacred Heart were from Central America and died from heatstroke, she said.
Discovering who the migrants were is a slow process. Baker said that of the 69 people that her students exhumed in 2013, three have been identified.
At Texas State, students who volunteer at Spradley’s lab hand wash clothes removed from the migrants bodies. Photos are taken of the clothes after they are cleaned and placed on missing persons websites.
Megan Veltri, a 24-year-old graduate student, said she volunteered for the work because “I think it’s a basic human right to know where your family is and if they’re OK, whether or not you immigrate legally here or not.”
The first shirt she washed, Veltri said, looked brown before she cleaned it and it turned out to be plaid. The shirt was the key to discovering the person’s identity.
A friend of the victim had filed a report that said he had tied a brown plaid shirt around the man’s leg to help him walk, Spradley said. “He couldn’t make it, so we left him behind in Brooks County,” the report said, according to Spradley. The man who died was from El Salvador but his relatives have not yet been contacted, she said.
The Reuniting Families project has changed the way migrants’ bodies are handled in Brooks County. The mortuary stopped burying unidentified bodies in the cemetery in August 2013, Martinez said, and now sends them to a medical examiner in Laredo.
If the medical examiner can’t identify the remains, they are sent to either Baker’s or Spradley’s lab, he said.
“I just can’t put into words how valuable their project is,” Martinez said.
Baker said she plans to return with students to the Falfurrias cemetery next year to exhume more bodies.
“I have a need to use the talents that God gave me,” said Baker. “These families are suffering and they have no way to get information about what happened to their loved ones.”
Information from: Austin American-Statesman, https://www.statesman.com
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