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In a potter's field, many thousands of bodies await identification

Published Aug. 31, 2012


On a windswept island off New York City, the remains of 850,000 people rest in pine boxes in a grid of covered trenches — but many are not resting in peace.

They are the unidentified or unclaimed dead who have been found around the nation's largest city — often with little hope of a loved one ever knowing their fate. Now, with advances in DNA technology and anthropology and with new federal funding, the city medical examiner's office has exhumed dozens of the bodies in a new push to identify several decades' worth.

It's how Ben Maurer's family finally learned that the 17-year-old had jumped to his death from a Manhattan building on June 25, 2002.

His mother, Germaine, submitted his DNA to the medical examiner in 2009, when the first phase of the project began. The DNA was entered into a public database containing information on thousands of cases of missing and unidentified people — and matched a John Doe buried in the potter's field on 101-acre Hart Island on Long Island Sound.

He was given a funeral near the family's home in Piscataway, N.J., shortly after his remains were returned to them in 2009.

"It meant everything," said Jared Maurer, Ben's 28-year-old brother. "It finally gave us closure to what had happened to Ben."

Jared Maurer said he frequently visits his brother's graveside. "I tell him I miss him, I tell him I love him," he said.

At any given time, there are 40,000 active missing and unidentified persons cases in the United States. New York state accounts for 25 percent of those cases, most of them in New York City.

The identities of some in the potter's field are known, but their families are too poor to have them buried elsewhere.

DNA samples weren't regularly taken from all bodies until about 2006, so the only way to identify many bodies is to exhume them, once DNA samples can be matched up with a description of a corpse, like in Maurer's case.

Fifty-four bodies for which the medical examiner's office had no DNA samples have been disinterred from Hart Island. The exhumation, performed by city inmates, is part of a larger effort to gather data. So far, 50 have been identified, including some who were exhumed.

To date, the scientists have gathered data on more than 1,200 unidentified bodies and entered it into Namus, the public database that is run by the National Institute of Justice — the research arm of the Department of Justice — that helped identify Maurer.

DNA technology that was developed to identify remains from the 9/11 attacks and other disasters, including Hurricane Katrina, has contributed to a national push in recent years to identify unclaimed remains, said Benjamin Figura, a forensic anthropologist and director of identification at the medical examiner's office.

The first phase of the project began under a grant from the National Institute of Justice that allowed the medical examiner to review cases going back to 1998. Two subsequent grants expanded the project to include cases dating to 1988. The grants total more than $1.5 million.

The third grant has been extended through April 2013, and the medical examiner's office has applied for a fourth grant. Once the money runs out, Figura said, the identification work will continue, but with fewer resources.

Bodies in advanced states of decomposition get an anthropological workup; scientists determine age, ancestry, sex and height and identify features that could be helpful in identification such as tattoos, scars and prior surgeries.

"What we're building is a biological profile. . . . If we can say this is a 17-to 25-year-old male, we can narrow down the pool of potential matches," said Bradley Adams, who heads the team. "If I say the person is 6 foot 2, that will pin it down more."

Germaine Maurer called the New York City morgue to search for her son the day after he disappeared, but because he had dark features and looked older, he was labeled as a male Hispanic in his 20s, rather than a 17-year-old white male.

She counts herself lucky.

"There are many families out there missing loved ones who never know what has happened," she said. "We were very fortunate. We found out all the details."


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