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No guarantees in process of identifying human remains

GRAND FORKS — When two fishermen came across human skeletal remains June 10 along the eastern banks of the Red River, everyone wondered: Who is it?

Finding out could be a process that takes days, weeks, months, years or decades, according to University of North Dakota forensic pathologists and medical examiners. Who is it? How long have they been there? We may never know.

"It's a process, not an event," said Dr. Mark Koponen, a 30-year medical examiner.

Each process is different, experts say, with unique challenges depending on how much of someone is found.

Once remains are collected, medical examiners take measurements of what parts they have and then work to construct what's called a biological profile to determine the subject's age, ancestry, sex and stature.

Koponen and fellow UND forensic pathologist and medical examiner Dr. Walter Kemp said they are in the process of finalizing the biological profile of the remains found in the Red River just south of Oslo, Minn.

"From that profile then, you can work with your investigating agencies to sort of narrow it down," Kemp said. "The agencies come to you with lists of people. Could it be this person? Could it be that person?"

Local law enforcement have already ruled out Veronica Safranski, who went missing from nearby Warren, Minn., 20 years ago, by cross referencing her dental records with the discovered remains.

Kemp and Koponen say it is important for medical examiners to be at the scene of discoveries to see if there is still tissue on the remains, any remnants of clothing or any other context clues.

In addition to the biological profile, examiners will look for other ways to identify a body. They use a digital X-ray machine to get dental profiles, and if the body is not too decomposed, may be able to get fingerprints.

They add that information to any DNA found to round out their information.

Koponen and Kemp have seen the field change dramatically over the years with the advent of DNA technology. Mitochondrial DNA gives examiners a clear matriarchal profile of a subject, but not the exact match brought by nuclear DNA, which occasionally can be found from dental samples.

Some people may have had a medical device implant, or a hip and knee replacement which can also help narrow the pool.

In more populated areas, law enforcement may have a forensic artist who can draw a rendering of a person based on their remains.

"I had a case in Columbus, Ga., where a lady came in and said, 'You've got my daughter,' " Koponen recalled.

She'd seen an artist rendering of skeletal remains the Georgia Bureau of Investigation had published in the newspaper.

When medical examiners have amassed all the information they can, they start to seek a match.

"All these things: dental and fingerprints and DNA, you have to have something to compare it to," Koponen said.

'Lost souls'

In 2007, the government launched NamUs.gov, a Department of Justice database of missing and unidentified persons used by law enforcement agencies, medical examiner's offices and the public to help connect databases of those who are lost with the unidentified bodies that already have been found.

"It's relatively new, but it's growing, and they're getting a lot of matches from it," Kemp said.

Most medical examiner's offices now keep their unknown persons databases online. The DOJ estimates there are about 40,000 unidentified persons in medical examiner's offices nationwide.

"There's so many lost souls in medical examiners' offices across the country, that there's a considerable effort to get these people identified," Koponen said.

Since 2009, Koponen said there's been one unidentified person who has come through the UND medical examiner's office, which serves 33 counties in North Dakota, Minnesota and South Dakota.

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