|By Claire Osborn, Austin American-Statesman|
|McClatchy-Tribune Information Services|
On the second day of digging under the blazing
Abernathy was one of nearly three-dozen students who volunteered this summer to help dig up the bodies buried at a cemetery in
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
Abernathy, 22 and a Baylor senior, said she paid
"The hardest part was seeing how people were treated after they were passed away," Abernathy said. "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
Baker and Texas State associate anthropology professor
"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
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.
'A total mess out there'
Before Baker started her project in
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
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.
Most of the migrants buried at Sacred Heart were from
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.
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
Project leads to changes
The Reuniting Families project has changed the way migrants' bodies are handled in
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
"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."
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