Baylor Anthropology Student Gains Experience Exhuming Remains to Identify the Unknown

  • Kaylin Valdez
    Kaylin Valdez courtesy photo.
  • Lori Baker
    Lori Baker describes how she and her students estimate the age, gender and race of a body based on its skull. Courtesy photo.
  • Brittany Arredondo and Katherine Fernandez
    Baylor University forensics students Brittany Arredondo (left) and Katherine Fernandez (right) examine the belongings found with remains in Falfurrias, Texas. Courtesy photo.
Oct. 31, 2013

WACO, Texas (Oct. 31, 2013) - Many people become squeamish or even ill when looking at or even thinking about blood, corpses or any kind of gore. Not Kaylin Valdez.

A senior anthropology student at Baylor University, Valdez spent two weeks in Falfurrias, a small town in Brooks County, Texas. There, she and other Baylor forensic anthropology students led by Lori Baker, Ph.D., associate professor in the department of anthropology in the College of Arts and Sciences, worked to recover and identify the bodies of what they believed to be undocumented immigrants.

These recoveries are part of Baker's program called "Reuniting Families." She, along with her team, exhumes bodies at pauper's cemeteries and conducts DNA tests in an effort to identify the unknown. Recently, Baker spoke about her and her team's work at the International Commission on Missing Persons Conference in The Hague, Netherlands.

While in Falfurrias, Valdez assisted in recovering unmarked bodies in a local cemetery. As one of the more experienced team members, she was often tasked with stepping into a thick, heavy hazmat suit and lifting bodies out of graves.

"When you're in there, you're trying to think of anything else besides the body," Valdez said. "We have to show the respect that people deserve, but at the same time you're holding onto somebody who's twice your weight, and you're in this hazmat suit and it's 100 degrees outside and all you want to do is get out of there."

But the team was sure to maintain respect for the bodies. "Because when you stop and think about it, this is somebody's mom or dad or brother or sister. This is somebody who's missing."

Baker recalled one recovery in particular that impacted students she had taken on a similar trip last year to Del Rio, Texas.

"Last year we found three children," Baker said, recalling when one group came across a safety pin in a grave. "And then, we noticed the coffin was small, so (the students) were pretty broken up when they first came across that."

"The bones were just so little," Valdez said. "It hit me pretty good because I have family. I have little cousins. I have a little niece. It could have been them if they were in that situation. I'll never forget the moment when we got to the body and I brushed off a little tiny humerus, the size of a pencil maybe."

"Some students start out and say, 'Nope! This is not for me,'" which is part of why the Baylor forensic science program was created, Baker said. She fears that without hands-on experience, students would discover their weak stomachs when it's too late.

But for Valdez, helping families find their missing loved ones is worth the unsettling sights and smells.

She described one woman in particular who recognized her and her teammates because they "were all muddy and dirty from digging." The woman's uncle had gone missing while trying to cross the Texas-Mexico border the year before and she couldn't thank the team enough for their work. "Little things like that are just really encouraging," Valdez said.

The entire forensics team experienced that same feeling when Baker received a phone call from a woman who had learned of her son's whereabouts because of their work.

"He was supposed to be 26 this July," Valdez said. "She was crying and was so overwhelmed with the news but she still told us, '. . . as long as he's been gone and as many times as people have told me that he's gone, I never believed it and I didn't want to believe it. But knowing the truth, I finally . . . have somewhere to put flowers to remember my son.'"

This kind of gratitude was a complete contrast from how the team was viewed at the beginning of their trip, Valdez said. At first, media chastised them for disturbing the graves and incorrectly assumed they were spending government funds to do so.

"All the money came out of our (the students') pockets," Valdez said. "We paid for the hotel. We paid for travelling expenses. We drove ourselves down there."

One of the reasons Valdez was willing to pay to help to identify immigrant remains was her personal connection to the work Baker and her team were doing there, she said. She has relatives in Monterrey, Mexico's biggest industrial city, where drug-related violence and abduction rates have reached all-time highs, according to the United States Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC).

"It is pretty bad, what people say about Mexico," she said. "It's a hard life. So I kind of felt connected to them in a way because this easily could have been my family. What if I had family who tried to (cross the border) and they passed away and nobody knew what happened to them?"

As for the future, Valdez has already spoken with a representative of McKinney Police Department about career possibilities in forensic science. She was warned about the amount of blood and corpses she would encounter in the field, but Valdez merely pointed to her experience doing recoveries.

"Just by saying that she saw me in a different light," Valdez said. "I think that's something that's going to be beneficial to me, just the experience. It's going to be that stand-out factor."

Baker and Valdez both hope to see Baylor create its own forensics graduate program.

"Then students like Kaylin that are exceptional can stay here and do graduate school with us and continue on with their education," Baker said.

"I would love to do more recoveries like this as well as continue working with Dr. Baker," Valdez said. "And, I would love it if Baylor had a forensics graduate program because I would definitely stay here."

by Rachel Miller, student newswriter, (254) 710-6805

ABOUT BAYLOR UNIVERSITY

Baylor University is a private Christian university and a nationally ranked research institution, characterized as having "high research activity" by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The university provides a vibrant campus community for approximately 15,000 students by blending interdisciplinary research with an international reputation for educational excellence and a faculty commitment to teaching and scholarship. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas through the efforts of Baptist pioneers, Baylor is the oldest continually operating university in Texas. Located in Waco, Baylor welcomes students from all 50 states and more than 80 countries to study a broad range of degrees among its 11 nationally recognized academic divisions. Baylor sponsors 19 varsity athletic teams and is a founding member of the Big 12 Conference.

ABOUT BAYLOR COLLEGE OF ARTS & SCIENCES

The College of Arts & Sciences is Baylor University's oldest and largest academic division, consisting of 26 academic departments and 13 academic centers and institutes. The more than 5,000 courses taught in the College span topics from art and theatre to religion, philosophy, sociology and the natural sciences. Faculty conduct research around the world, and research on the undergraduate and graduate level is prevalent throughout all disciplines. Visit www.baylor.edu/artsandsciences.

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