Special Report - DNA Delay
(NEWSCHANNEL 3) – Newschannel 3’s I-Team is exposing a grim reality that police, medical examiners, and families in Michigan now face.
“There will be many more lonely bodies that lay in a morgue unidentified,” said Kellie Yunginger.
Newschannel 3 has learned that for the foreseeable future, unidentified bodies have almost no chance of being tested for DNA.
The type of DNA work needed in these cases is highly specialized. In fact, investigators in Michigan really only have one option, shipping the bones down to a lab in Texas.
That lab just sent out a letter saying, effective immediately, they can’t accept any new cases.
The bones belong to people who lived with a name but died without when. Instead of being laid to rest, they lie in labs and rest in boxes.
“Having these people in this limbo is kind of the worst fate I think,” said Carolyn Isaac.
Isaac is a forensic anthropologist at the Medical Examiner’s office in Kalamazoo. The lab there takes in bodies from nine local counties. Most of the bodies can be identified within a week through family or fingerprints, dental records or even tattoos, but there are four or five each year who get slapped with a label Isaac dreads, ‘unidentified.’
Those complicated cases are the ones they typically send off to the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification.
“We sent this whole vertebra to get DNA analysis,” said Isaac.
UNT performs specialized sampling to upload into CODIS, the DNA database run by the FBI. The hope is to strike a match with a person who’s been reported missing and solve two mysteries at once.
The National Institute of Justice has footed the bill for the past thirteen years with special grant money set aside for the voiceless victims.
Now, according to an urgent memo, the lab was recently notified that the grant would not be offered this year, or next year, so they will not be able to offer DNA testing or accept new submissions.
“This is extremely crippling to law enforcement efforts,” said Det. Sgt. Sarah Krebs, Michigan State Police.
Det. Krebs runs the Missing Persons Clearinghouse for Michigan State Police, working with both unidentified remains and the families of the missing.
“How many cases would you anticipate this would affect in Michigan?” asked Newschannel 3’s Alex Jokich.
“Oh, I’m going to say it’s going to affect hundreds of cases,” said Det. Krebs. “It has put an absolute halt to our efforts.”
UNT was told the money is being redirected to other DNA needs like backlogged rape kits, but Det. Krebs believes slashing the missing person’s grant slashes whatever hope the families have left.
“It’s very hard to tell a family if we can’t identify their loved one any other way, hey, we may not be able to do this unless this grant gets refunded,” said Det. Krebs, “so it’s caused some heartache.”
Kellie Yunginger knows the heartache all too well.
“We never did anything to deserve this, and neither did Rich,” said Yunginger.
Yunginger’s cousin, Richard Hitchcock, disappeared from Allegan 26 years ago. She’s spearheaded the efforts to find him and shudders at the thought that with the current cuts, if his body is found, it could sit untested in a morgue somewhere while she keeps up a futile search.
“How sad it’s a possibility that someone could just sit in a lab forever because no one thinks it’s worth it,” said Yunginger.
The Medical Examiner’s Office in Kalamazoo showed Newschannel 3 two skulls they recently got in.
“We really have no hope of identifying this individual,” said Isaac.
They’d normally send the skulls to Texas. Isaac says it’s the worst feeling, knowing there’s probably a family out there looking for someone.
“Seeing their case numbers every week, just staring back at us, that these people aren’t identified and maybe never will be,” said Isaac.
The Center for Human Identification in Texas says they’re working with the federal government toward a resolution on this issue.