Texas scholar's work to ID immigrant corpses is gratifying — and sad

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 Mexico 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.

Rosa Cano Dominguez, 32, was a mother of two from the Yucatan region who had been traveling to work in the Pacific Northwest when she sprained her ankle. She was abandoned by smugglers.

Baker was pregnant at the time and was struck by all she shared with Cano: They were both in their 30s, both working mothers from poor, less-educated families.

"I cried and cried over that case," she said.

"I wasn't sure I could keep doing this, because it disturbed me so much. We're supposed to be detached doing this work, and I'm not."

She imagined what it would be like for Cano's mother and children to hear about her death and lose hope.

When the time came to repatriate the remains, Baker's pregnancy kept her from traveling with her team. Cano's mother mistook another woman for Baker and embraced her.

Hearing the story later from team members, Baker felt relief.

"She just kept saying 'Thank you doctor,'" Baker said.

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Baker is the grandchild of a strict Southern Baptist preacher and was raised in Lufkin, an eastern Texas logging town. She became the first in her family to attend college, graduating from Baylor in 1993 with a degree in anthropology.

She was fascinated by human biology, especially DNA. In graduate school, she specialized in forensics at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, home to the "Body Farm," an outdoor lab for studying corpses at the university's Forensic Anthropology Center.

She met and married her husband, Erich Baker, a fellow student, and was studying ancient DNA extracted from the hair of Native Americans when she was invited to help identify the remains of people who disappeared in Panama and Peru. As she discussed her work with fellow researchers, Baker found herself talking about migrant deaths on the U.S. border.