Experts talk about identification process of human remains

Anthropology lab at Texas State University. (KXAN Photo)
Anthropology lab at Texas State University. (KXAN Photo)

GEORGETOWN, Texas (KXAN) — Although no human remains were found but if they were, KXAN spoke with Dr. Suzanne Dana, forensic pathologist in Lockhart, about what it takes to identify a body which has been buried for years, or possibly even decades.

Dana said a body that has been buried for 15 years would likely be skeletal by now, but that all depends on the conditions of burial, including what type of clothing, if any, the deceased was wearing.

To identify the body, examiners would likely turn to the following methods:

  • Dental records
  • X-Rays of unique bones, such as skull, face and sinus cavities
  • DNA taken from bones
  • Skin could be mummified in certain conditions, which could allow investigators to match tattoos

Kate Spradley, an Anthropology professor from Texas State University says it can be very challenging when the bones are more than 15 years old. If the remains were come to her lab, she would look at how well they’re preserved, whether they were subject to UV radiation and what kind of soil the remains were in. Once in the lab, she would conduct a post-mortem examination where she collects data, estimates the sex and tries to pull a DNA sample.

In recent years, KXAN has profiled the Forensic Services Unit at the University of North Texas. UNT’s Center for Human Identifications is the key to solving a lot of missing persons’ cases across the country as it helps with facial reconstructions of unidentified bodies. The center also assists with DNA collections to match bodies with missing persons and manages the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System.

The system is a tool used to assist authorities and families in solving long-term missing and unidentified cases.

Rachel Cooke’s case is part of the database.

Rachel, who was 19 years old at the time, vanished during her morning run in Georgetown on Jan. 10, 2002.

Her file in the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System contains details including dental records and information about her tattoos, which can all be used to help match up bodies with ongoing investigations. provides commenting to allow for constructive discussion on the stories we cover. In order to comment here, you acknowledge you have read and agreed to our Terms of Service. Users who violate these terms, including use of vulgar language or racial slurs, will be banned. If you see an inappropriate comment, please flag it for our moderators to review.

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