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Experts give insight into forensic database

Last Modified: Friday, September 28, 2012 2:02 PM

By Johnathan Manning / American Press

A database for missing and unidentified people exists in Louisiana, but work is always being done to make it complete, members of LSU’s FACES Lab told coroners and law enforcement officials Wednesday.

Mary Manhein and Nicole Harris, forensic anthropologists with the lab, were the final speakers at the Southwest Louisiana Death and Bone Conference, hosted by the Calcasieu Parish Coroner’s Office, the Louisiana Organ Procurement Agency and the Southern Eye Bank.

Terry Welke, Calcasieu Parish coroner, said the event was geared to bring “uniformity” between coroner’s and law enforcement agencies.

The Louisiana Repository for Unidentified and Missing People, a division of the FACES Lab, contains information on 236 unidentified people and more than 500 missing people — some of them from out of state, Harris said.

She said the goal wasn’t to take cases from local law enforcement agencies, but to help share information.

“We are always trying to update and make it better,” Harris said. “What we’re trying to do is build a database to send these people home.”

Manhein, director of the FACES Lab and known as “The Bone Lady,” spoke about the identification clues that can be gleaned from skeletal remains, as well as various other signs that human remains often give.

In addition to offering clues about how someone died, she said, bones can also provide clues to a person’s ancestry, height, age, medical history and health.

“There’s a clue on every part of the skeleton that can help us develop a profile,” she said.

By examining the skeleton of a 2,000-year-old mummy — nicknamed “the princess of Thebes” — at the Louisiana Art & Science Museum in Baton Rouge, Manhein said her office was able to determine that the mummy was a man, not a woman.

She said her office often uses clay to reconstruct the faces of missing people, based on the remains that are found. She said one case — a man dumped in a Bossier Parish landfill in 1979 — was brought to her office in 1982.

A facial reconstruction was completed when the office began using them more than 20 years later. For a while it yielded no results, even though she took the reconstructed face with her to a conference with detectives in north Louisiana.

One day, however, a detective happened to be visiting her office on another case; he said he thought he recognized the man, who turned out to be Victor Barajas, a McAllen, Texas, native who went missing during a visit to Mansfield in 1975.

More than 170 people from 29 parishes and 59 agencies attended the event, said Charlie Hunter, an investigator with the Calcasieu Parish Coroner’s Office. He said the hope is to hold the event annually.

“When we planned it, I didn’t think we’d have this many people,” Hunter said. “It is an unbelievable turnout.”

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