A disturbing story came out of Albuquerque, New Mexico this week. The body of a young boy, estimated to be 3-5 years old, was found buried in a sandbox in a public park. An autopsy has been performed but as yet the child has not been identified. Here’s a link to the AP story on this tragic event:
This brings up the topic of body identification. The police and the medical examiner are often confronted with bodies that are unidentified. It is critically important that the victim of a murder be identified for the simple reason that 90% or more of all murders are perpetrated by someone who knows the victim. This goes back to motive. There are very few motives for killing a stranger but the world is full of motives for killing someone that you know. So the identification of a found corpse is critical in tracking down the killer.
The first and most obvious step in making the identification is to gather all the pertinent physical information about the body. These would include age, size, sex, race, type of clothing, and any other what are called burial artifacts. These might include a wallet, rings and watches, clothing manufacturer and any laundry marks or identification labels, and anything else that appears to have been associated with the person: a backpack, a book or newspaper, a food item, or almost any other object that the person might have had with them at the time of death. These things will often lead investigators to the identification of individual.
In addition, at autopsy the medical examiner will look for tattoos, surgical scars, old bone fractures, evidence of any ongoing disease processes, and even implanted medical devices such as pacemakers or artificial hips. Many of these devices have serial numbers etched into them and these can easily be traced back to the individual that received the device implant. Fingerprints and DNA might be run through the Automatic Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS) and the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), respectively, to look for a match against these databases. If a match is found, the body has been identified.
If not, all of this information will be compared with police records of any reported missing individual and if a similar individual has been reported missing, identification will then be attempted using photographs, fingerprints, dental records, and DNA. People who knew the missing person can often review the photograph of the body and in this way determined if it is their loved one or not. If no one can be found or if they cannot ID the body due to facial trauma or decomposition, then fingerprints and DNA might be used. The problem here is that if the victim has no fingerprints or dental records on file, these will be of little use. The same can be said for DNA.
But even if no one can identify the victim from a photograph or from viewing the corpse, DNA from suspected relatives can often be used to make the identification. This is another complex subject but in general if both the parents of the missing individual are available then DNA taken from them and from the body can prove paternity and therefore identification. Also mitochondrial DNA from the mother or Y-chromosomal DNA from the father could be matched against that of the corpse and if they match a presumptive ID can be made. This is not a strong as nuclear DNA evidence but it is highly suggestive since parents pass these small bits of DNA along to their children. A mother passes mitochondrial DNA to her children of both sexes while Y-chromosomal DNA is only passed from the father to any of his male offspring.
The problem in this case is that they are dealing with a child. Children of this age rarely have surgical scars or tattoos or carry wallets or have fingerprints, dental records, or DNA on file. This means that the identification of this child will most likely result from good, hard-nosed police work. The odds are that someone very close to this child, such as a mother, father, or other relative, is the one who killed and buried the child. It is possible that this could have been a stranger abduction but in these cases the family always becomes the initial suspect. This is simply playing the odds.
One unusual thing did jump out of this AP report that I’m not sure I can explain. They stated that the heat of the sand had altered the appearance of the body so that the race could not be determined. I would suspect that what this means is that the heat had basically cooked the body to a darker color and therefore investigators are having trouble determining whether the child was white, Hispanic, or black in ancestry.
Let’s hope that this child can be identified and that this case can be resolved. It’ll be interesting to follow and see where this leads.