In a small Texas town about five miles from the Mexican border, lies Westlawn Cemetery, a place where the poor and lost are buried in unmarked graves, their identities unknown. A group of Baylor University professors and students hope to give those buried there a name and return them to their loved ones.
On May 20, Dr. Lori Baker, associate professor of anthropology at Baylor, and her colleague Baylor forensic science lecturer Jim Huggins will take 18 Baylor undergraduate students to Del Rio, Texas for several weeks to assist with mapping the cemetery, exhuming the deceased and recovering remains. "No one else in the United States is doing this right now—taking students on a field school to identify the undocumented population that have died while crossing the border. This is very unique," said Baker. "This experience will allow the students to learn with hands-on experience how to locate and recover human remains in a forensic context. They will then learn how to analyze the remains in order to learn all that they can from the deceased and how to look for signs of ante-mortem and postmortem trauma. There is no better learning experience that we can provide for them." After exhuming the graves, students will work in teams to process and analyze the remains and perform a full anthropological analysis to determine age, sex, ancestry, and stature of the deceased at laboratories at Baylor and Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. Baker will collect DNA samples from the remains for testing. The DNA analysis will be included in the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) and the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) and shared with officials in Del Rio and the Mexican Secretary of Foreign Affairs with the goal of positive identification and repatriation of the remains to their families in Mexico. Although this is Huggins first field school of this type, his almost 30-year career in law enforcement has allowed him to experience exhumations as part of forensic criminal investigations. "This type of project will provide real-world experience for students who aspire to become anthropologists and forensic scientists as well as those who have a desire to serve in a worthwhile project," Huggins said.
For Baker, the field school is a continuation of her work as part of the "Reuniting Families" program that she helped develop almost a decade ago to identify those buried without names that would otherwise remain unidentified if not through the efforts of Baker, Huggins and their team. "We get an opportunity to help alleviate the anguish that families go through not knowing what happened to their loved ones," said Baker. "We will do all we can to give them names and to get them back to their families. We hope that the closure will bring peace to the families."
Sergeant Jim Huggins worked for the Texas Department of Public Safety for 29 years serving his last 15 years with the department as a Texas Ranger Sergeant prior to joining the Anthropology, Forensic Science and Archeology department at Baylor. Dr. Lori Baker has examined the remains of roughly 300 unidentified, undocumented immigrants that resulted in 70 direct identifications and subsequent repatriations. She is currently featured in a four-part series on the National Geographic Channel called "The Decrypters."