WACO, Texas — The forensic anthropologist lifted a thighbone from the skeleton arrayed on her metal lab table and studied the fine cracks traversing its surface, gray and weathered as driftwood.
Associate professor Lori Baker, 44, set the bone down and cradled the man’s skull, its silver canines gleaming. She pointed to the eye sockets; they had been pecked, probably by vultures. Baker had recovered the remains from a ranch near the Mexican border. Judging by the skeleton’s size, shape and worn hip joints, she said, it probably belonged to a middle-aged Central American laborer.
Last year, U.S. border officials saw a significant increase in migrant deaths to 463, the second-highest total in 15 years; more than half were in Texas, often without identification.
Many Texas counties do not have medical examiners, so identifying the dead falls to the justice of the peace or funeral homes. Some can’t afford the expense of identifying the dead. In one county that has seen a sharp rise in such deaths, it costs at least $750 to transport remains, and another $2,000 for an autopsy.
Baker has made it her mission to meet the need, driven as much by faith as by science.
She opened a lab in 2002 at Baylor University in Waco and assembled scientists and a rotating cast of students who over the last decade have analyzed and extracted DNA from 278 sets of remains and identified 70 of them.
Last summer, Baker and her students took a trip south, expecting to excavate about two dozen migrant remains; instead, they recovered about 120.
She still remembers her first case. In 2003, Pima County, Ariz., had seen a growing number of Mexican immigrants dying in the desert. Baker offered to help. The bones had been found near a voter registration card, which the local consulate used to track down a family who volunteered saliva for DNA samples. Baker extracted DNA from the bones, and it matched.