Identifying a human body isn't easy when you're dealing with decomposed remains or just a few scattered bones. The Center for Human Identification at the University of North Texas specializes in these kinds of cases and receives requests for help from all over the nation.
Dixie Peters leads the missing persons lab at the university, which made headlines in July for identifying another victim of John Wayne Gacy, a notorious 1970s serial killer in Chicago, who raped and murdered dozens of teenage boys and young men.
Helping close older cases of course has its challenges, Peters says, but work on cases like the recently identified Gacy victim prove rewarding because more family members who've lost someone with a similar DNA profile come forward and related cases can be solved.
On the lab's typical cases: "We accept cases [in which] skeletal remains are discovered in a variety of different situations, and they have no idea who they are. So investigators will call on us to try to get a DNA profile from that, put that into a database and hopefully match that up with relatives who are missing their loved ones, where we've previously have processed their samples. We will also accept some cases that perhaps they just need a confirmation of a DNA identity."
On the lab's oldest case: "I think from the 1920s, 1930s because they weren't exactly sure when the remains had been buried. But they were buried in soil, so they unearthed all these graves, and there was very little remains left over; there were some teeth that weren't even intact anymore. The bones were very brittle; they would just fall apart in your hands."
On identifying a victim from serial killer John Wayne Gacy: "The Cook County Sheriff's Office outside of Chicago, Illinois — I'm not exactly sure how they heard about us — but they had contacted us in 2011 and wanted to see if we would be willing to try to process these bones. They had eight sets of remains that had not been identified back in the late '70s, early '80s; DNA wasn't around at that time.
"And certainly we were willing to help them out, and we were able to get DNA profiles from these skeletal remains. And then once they knew that we had the DNA profiles, then they made a press release or a public announcement for families to come forward that had missing brothers that matched the victim profile of a John Wayne Gacy victim."
On the most difficult part of the job: "The skeletal remains themselves are just so challenging. And for agencies and for the families who are waiting, I can't imagine what the pain is of waiting for something like that, but it does take time. And unfortunately it's not like what we see on TV where we can turn around a DNA profile really quickly.
"So that's the challenge: It's just trying to not only maintain a high level of quality in the work that we do, but also trying to do it as quickly as we possibly can, but knowing that it may take us several attempts in order to be able to get a good profile."
Note: You may have heard earlier this year that the Center for Human Identification wasn’t able to accept as many cases due to federal funding cuts. UNT officials say the center has resumed DNA and anthropological services for all U.S. law enforcement agencies, thanks to support from the National Institute of Justice.