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University Center for Human Identification helps identify missing persons across the country

University Center for Human Identification helps identify missing persons across the country

July 22
12:00 2021

The university’s Center for Human Identification is a globally recognized forensic laboratory that utilizes DNA testing to identify missing persons and unidentified crime victims.

The CHI is run by the university’s Health Science Center in Fort Worth. It offers various services, including training of students and professionals, anthropological examinations and multiple research and development initiatives. The center’s missing persons unit has processed a majority of samples that reside in the Combined DNA Index System database, a national DNA database maintained by the FBI.

“The main purpose of [CODIS] is to help with identifying individuals who commit crimes, so the database is populated with convicted offenders,” CHI Associate Director Michael Coble said. “And there are other people who’ve been obligated to give their DNA sample to be put into the database.”

The CODIS database also includes a component for missing persons cases. Families of missing persons can submit their DNA samples into the database to help identify and potentially link skeletal remains back to their families.

“[We] may have the individual’s mother and maybe [the individual’s] father [who have] both given their DNA sample and now we’ve got the DNA sample from the skeleton,” Coble said. “We can do that comparison to ask the question, ‘are these two individuals potentially the parents of this missing person?’ And that’s how a lot of these cases get solved, from that kind of comparison.”

Coble said crime labs in the U.S. are typically not related to or associated with universities.

“One of our founding directors, the late Dr. Arthur Eisenberg, was instrumental in getting the missing persons program established here more than 25 years ago,” Coble said. “He had a very good relationship with the FBI and the FBI granted the university permission to have this software to be able to do this.”

Since 2011, the CHI has managed the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System online database, which stores records like DNA that can be used by the general public and law enforcement to help connect unidentified remains to possible missing persons. This and the rest of the center’s work is funded through the state of Texas and various project grants from different agencies across the nation.

“NamUs is fully funded through two awards to the University of North Texas and the North Carolina-based Research Triangle Institute International,” Tannyr Watkins, National Institute of Justice Public Affairs Specialist, said in an email. “This year, NIJ awarded the University of North Texas almost $8 million to continue NamUs database and testing services and to eliminate a backlog of forensic casework accrued by the center.”

This funding allows the CHI to work on various types of criminal investigations. The center is also a part of Gov. Greg Abbott’s Sexual Assault Task Force and completes sexual assault kits for the state of Texas.

“The Denton Police Department has enjoyed a close partnership with the UNT CHI for many years,” DPD Forensics Manager Michael Kessler said in an email. “The CHI’s expertise in the analysis of biological evidence has played a key role in many high-profile, major criminal investigations. Through state and federal funding, the UNT CHI provides its forensic DNA analysis services at no cost – critical support to our efforts to reduce violent crime and create a safer Denton.”

Along with working with the state and surrounding counties, the CHI also helps in high-profile federal investigations. Since 2011, the center has identified several of the formerly unknown victims of Chicago-area serial killer John Wayne Gacy.

“I think the thing that I’m most proud of the center for is the fact that we’re able to give names to remains,” Coble said. “And we’re able to let families get closure. It can be such a huge burden on their psyche to not know what happened, but then to know that they have their [family member’s remains], that means a lot.”

Featured Illustration by Miranda Thomas

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Yaryzza Lira

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