In the summer of 2013, a team of forensic anthropologists from Baylor University and the University of Indianapolis descended upon Sacred Heart Cemetery, a small, county-run graveyard in rural Brooks County. Small metal markers with the words “Unknown” or “Skeletal Remains” were scattered through the dusty grass and along the cemetery access roads. More than 300 migrants had died in the county during the past five years, and unidentified human remains ended up here. For Dr. Lori Baker, a forensic anthropologist at Baylor University, identifying migrant remains and returning them to grieving families had become a mission. “Nobody cares about dead immigrants,” she said recently. “They’re invisible when they’re alive, and they’re even more invisible when they’re dead.” For years, she and her students had been conducting exhumations and gathering DNA samples across the border regions of South Texas.
But she’d never gone as far inland as Falfurrias, home to a Border Patrol checkpoint some 70 miles north of the Texas-Mexico border. As she had elsewhere, she approached the chief deputy sheriff, Benny Martinez, to offer her services. “Of course the chief was like, ‘Yes, we could use all the help we can get, any help you can give us,’” Baker said.
She knew the graves might be difficult to locate. “I can tell you that we have yet to find a cemetery that has a map,” she said. “So you can’t look at a map and know where human remains are buried. Especially when they’re not marked.” Still, even she was surprised by what she found at the cemetery. Digging around a handful of markers, Baker and her team of volunteers expected to find maybe 10 bodies. Instead, they exhumed more than 50 unidentified human remains during the course of 10 days, all presumed to be border crossers from Central America and Mexico. Some were buried in coffins; others in only body bags. She planned to go back the following summer to continue.
When Baker returned in early June of 2014, she came with a larger team in order to cover more ground. They recovered nearly 70 more human remains. This time, what they found made the evening news. “Mass Graves of Unidentified Migrants Found in South Texas,” read a headline in the Los Angeles Times. Reports emerged of bodies buried in kitchen trash bags, with as many as five piled on top of one another in a single grave. One corpse was wrapped in a burlap bag; other remains were found inside a milk crate. Skulls were wedged between coffins, Baker said. The shocking news attracted the attention of elected officials. By month’s end, state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa of McAllen, 75 miles to the south, said he would ask the Texas Rangers to investigate. “This is too serious of a wrongdoing,” Hinojosa said. “I’m appalled at the number of bodies just left in body bags and, in many instances, more than one body in one bag.”
On June 25, 2014, the Texas Rangers launched a preliminary inquiry to determine whether any criminal wrongdoing had occurred in the processing and burial of the unidentified remains. They assigned the job to Lt. Corey Lain, an experienced investigator who had recently been honored by the U.S. attorney in Dallas for his exemplary work on a federal attempted murder case. He was assigned to look into any improprieties on the parts of Elizondo Mortuary, which was tasked with collecting DNA samples, identifying bodies, and storing the remains before burial; Funeraria Del Angel Howard-Williams (Howard-Williams Funeral Services), which buried the remains and was suspected of improper burials, failure to properly mark remains and gravesites, and overbilling; and Brooks County, which was missing autopsy records. If Lain found evidence of possible lawbreaking, a criminal investigation would ensue.
Three years ago, Elmer Barahona Iraheta, a 22-year-old father living in San Vicente, El Salvador, made a fateful decision. He had been struggling to find enough work in the impoverished agricultural city to support his wife and 2-year-old daughter, and gang violence there was spiraling out of control. But he had a contact in Houston who would help him find work. He pooled scarce resources to hire the services of a coyote, a human smuggler, to help him navigate the dangerous journey to the United States. It was the only way he could imagine providing a future for his new family.
Elmer said his goodbyes on June 10, 2012, and on June 27 called his mother to say that he’d crossed the border and arrived safely in McAllen. He said he was waiting in a stash house for a guide who would take his group north, and that he would call again once he reached Houston. According to his aunt, Marta Iraheta, who has since pieced together the chain of events, Elmer set out with the guide and a small group of other migrants a few days later, on July 2. They were most likely driven from McAllen to just south of the Falfurrias checkpoint, from where they would have to travel some 40 miles on foot to avoid detection by border agents. North of the checkpoint, they’d be picked up by another smuggler and taken to Houston. Home free.
But it was the height of summer, with temperatures over 100 degrees. The terrain is rough and sandy. Water supplies are quickly drained. Bodies overheat rapidly. The year Elmer took this trek, 130 migrant bodies were found in the remote ranchland he was about to cross.
On the Fourth of July, Marta, then living in Houston, received a call from her sister, Elmer’s mother, in El Salvador. She sounded distraught, and pleaded with Marta to try to find Elmer. Marta quickly went to the Salvadoran Consulate in Houston, a photo of her nephew in hand. She drove to McAllen, six hours away, where Elmer was when he’d last called home, and visited the Mexican Consulate there. She contacted law enforcement and local hospitals. No one had any information.
Marta returned home, where she frantically called and emailed anyone who might be able to connect her with someone who might know what had happened to Elmer. Finally, she found a man Elmer had befriended along the journey, someone who had made it safely to the East Coast. He told Marta that Elmer had injured his leg as they were making their way through a ranch at night. After that, Elmer could barely walk, and struggled to keep up with the group. They had almost reached their pickup point when the guide decided that Elmer had become a burden and left him behind, alone.
Months later, by September, Marta knew in her gut that Elmer was dead. Her new mission was to find his body and return it to his family in El Salvador, so his young daughter would have a place to visit her father. So she headed south to Brooks County.
On June 27, 2014, just two days after he was asked to conduct an inquiry into the mass graves, Lain submitted his report. It was four-and-a-half pages long, and relied heavily on an inspection of Howard-Williams, the funeral home, by the Texas Funeral Service Commission, which oversees mortuaries. He found no evidence of overbilling, no evidence of the use of improper burial containers, no evidence of irregularities with the autopsies, and “no evidence to show that human remains were buried in violation of the law.” Lain found that DNA samples were being properly collected, as required by law, and though they were not forwarded as required to a repository at the University of North Texas, that was only because county officials were “unaware of a requirement to do so.”
Far from insinuating any wrongdoing, Lain noted that Brooks County’s top executive, County Judge Raul Ramirez, said that Howard-Williams employees had built wooden caskets and left flowers at gravesites at their own expense. “It is my opinion,” Lain wrote, “that sufficient information and evidence does not exist to support the initiation of a formal criminal investigation.”
Texas Ranger Maj. Brian J. Burzynski, an award-winning investigator in his own right, signed off on Lain’s findings. And that was that. “Rangers: No Laws Broken in Border Burials,” the Houston Chronicle reported.
Texas law only lightly governs burials and the handling of human remains; in some cases, laws weren’t violated because the laws simply don’t exist. Lain notes, for example, “There are no statutes prohibiting more than one set of human remains to be buried with another at a government owned cemetery.”
None of the forensic or funeral service experts I spoke with could dispute that claim.
But a careful review of the practices Lain was charged with examining reveals that many laws and standard practices were violated in the handling of the unidentified remains. And these violations have made it nearly impossible for grieving families to locate and claim their loved ones. Repeated public-document requests of Brooks County produced only a fraction of what should be retained by law.
According to the Brooks County Sheriff’s Office, from 2009 through 2013, the years when the mass graves were most active, 361 migrant remains were recovered in Brooks County. Each of those remains would have passed through multiple hands. When remains are discovered, a deputy sheriff is called to investigate the scene, along with a county justice of the peace who makes a determination of death. Funeraria del Angel Howard-Williams, the funeral home in nearby Hebbronville owned by Service Corporation International, the nation’s largest death services provider, then arrives to recover the remains, which are transferred to Elizondo Mortuary in Mission for processing. However, Texas law does not require processing and identification of human remains be performed by a licensed medial examiner.
Elizondo is supposed to try to identify each set of remains, a process that by law includes gathering fingerprints, photographing any clothing or possessions, and “proper removal of a sample from a body” for lab tests. When Ramirez or a justice of the peace requests an autopsy, it is conducted by a third party—starting in 2007, that third party was a local pathologist, Dr. Fulgencio Salinas. After some weeks, Elizondo returns any unidentified remains to Howard-Williams for burial in Sacred Heart. At every stage, a paper trail accumulates. According to Texas law, death records must be retained for at least 10 years.
The sheriff’s office turned over all 361 crime scene reports. But the Brooks County clerk’s office could locate files related to the retrieval and burial of no more than 121 of these remains, leaving records on two-thirds of the dead unaccounted for. According to notes from a series of meetings that took place from December 2012 to June 2013 between the forensic anthropologists and county officials, and confirmed by Chief Deputy Martinez, the county sheriff’s office never received from Salinas a single autopsy report during this period, despite repeated requests. By law, such reports must be made available to law enforcement.
Also, despite requests, the sheriff’s office was never notified about which human remains had been positively identified and returned to loved ones. According to the meeting notes from Dec. 3-4, 2012, “no such list exists.”
Lain was tasked with looking into missing autopsy reports, but, based on a conversation with the county auditor, determined that they’d been sent to the county along with the invoices. Yet in response to a request under the Texas Public Information Act, of the 72 autopsies ordered on unidentified remains from 2007 to 2013, the county clerk could not produce 14 of them—nearly one in five.
Excerpt, read Graves of Shame -By John Carlos Frey | Texas Observer