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N4T Investigators: Grant received to identify remains

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TUCSON (KVOA) - There are over 100 unidentified remains at the Pima County Cemetery - some are homicide victims, others were found in the desert.

The Pima County Medical Examiners Office is making every attempt possible to put a name to the remains.

By Arizona law, the Office of the Medical Examiner is tasked with identifying every individual that is examined by their office.

A $175,000 grant from the Department of Justice is making it possible to exhume multiple graves, such as John Doe's No. 65 and No. 77 along with Jane Doe No. 12 and John Doe No. 17 all buried in 1998.

Dr. Jennifer Vollner is a forensic anthropologist with the Pima County Medical Examiner's office.

"Just because it was 1998, there wasn't the same technology that we have today," Vollner said. "Doesn't mean that we shouldn't continue to try."

Once the remains are exhumed, they are taken to the medical examiners.

"What we're going to do is cut DNA samples to send out to various labs in hopes to identify these individuals," Vollner said.

Prior to the year 2000, DNA samples were not taken from unidentified remains which is why they are being exhumed now.

Dr. Caitlin Vogelsberg along with Vollner are responsible for obtaining the grant.

"Hopefully, somebody out there has been looking for them and has submitted a sample out there to compare to," Vogelsberg said.

Once the DNA is submitted into the National Combined DNA Index System or CODIS, Vogelsberg added, "There are two sides of it. There is the unidentified side and there's also the side where families can submit samples that's the family reference side. Ultimately, our samples will be compared to that."

Remains of unsolved homicide victims are also being exhumed such as John Doe No. 16 buried in 1997.

James Gamber, a retired detective with the Pima County Sheriff's Department is in charge of the Cold Case Unit, explained John Doe was found inside of a burning car near Ajo Arizona.

"The car was on fire with this gentleman found inside, being consumed by the fire," he said.

The retired homicide detective is present at the exhumations as well as at the medical examiner's office when DNA is being extracted.

"We hold a section of the DNA for evidentiary purposed especially if you are looking for prosecution," he said.

The DNA will also be submitted into the national databases including NAMUS, a national information clearinghouse and resource center for missing, unidentified and unclaimed person cases.

But more importantly, the motivation to exhume and identify these remains is so the families can have some closure and get their loved ones back.

Currently, the Pima County Medical Examiners office has well over 1,000 unidentified remains. The grant is just the tip of the iceberg. But at least it's a start.

It will take at least another year before the medical examiner's office hears if any matches have been made. But they have a good track record.

The last federal grant they received was $250,000 for DNA analysis in 2018.

According to the medical examiner's office, they collected 237 bone samples, which resulted in 57 identifications.

Lupita Murillo

Lupita Murillo is an investigative reporter. She is part of the Digging Deeper team that uncovers important issues focusing on crime that affects the community.

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