MSU Forensic Anthropology Lab participates in Operation UNITED

This September, the MSU Forensic Anthropology Laboratory (MSUFAL) participated in Operation UNITED in collaboration with the FBI’s Evidence Response Team, the Detroit Police Department (DPD), and several other local universities and law enforcement agencies. Operation UNITED is an acronym which stands for “Unknown Names Identified Through Exhumation and DNA.”

Operation UNITED began as a grassroots effort between DPD Sgt. Shannon Jones and FBI Special Agent Leslie Larsen to solve as many cold case homicides in Detroit as possible. By exhuming the remains of unidentified homicide victims and comparing their DNA with family reference samples, Operation UNITED seeks to make identifications and jump start cold case investigations. This is the third season of the project and participants have successfully exhumed the remains of over 100 unidentified homicide victims, several of which have ultimately led to positive identifications.

Dr. Carolyn Isaac, Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology and MSUFAL Laboratory Director, as well as graduate students in the Department of Anthropology Clara Devota, Rhian Dunn, Micayla Spiros, and Alex Goots attended the three-day excavation. Each graduate student joined an interdisciplinary team and worked to locate and excavate remains based on cemetery records and autopsy details. Dr. Isaac rotated between the teams, providing her expertise in forensic anthropology and confirming whether or not the remains matched the demographic details of the person in question.

According to Special Agent Leslie Larsen, “Forensic anthropologists on scene are the instrumental piece that we need to make sure we are exhuming the correct bodies from the ground. They review the case files and autopsy reports then match those findings with the human remains uncovered by our dig site teams. Without on-site forensic anthropologists working with us, we would not be able to do these body recoveries.”

Over the course of the three day excavation, Operation UNITED was able to recover human remains from 21 individuals, bringing the running grand total of DNA samples to 121 individuals for the whole project. In short, 121 individuals who have been missing, some for decades, finally have the opportunity to be identified and properly laid to rest, thanks to the tireless efforts of everyone involved in Operation UNITED.