A 35-year-old man is the first missing person whose remains have been identified through a new DNA database at the University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth.
Alejandro Gomez, a Mexican migrant worker living in Dawson County near Lubbock, was reported missing in January. Three months later, cowboys on a nearby ranch found a skeleton with Gomez’ identification cards, but his identity could not be confirmed through fingerprints or dental records. He was officially declared dead Aug. 22 by the Lubbock County medical examiner after DNA tests on the skeleton matched family reference samples from his mother.
“Gomez may be the first missing person we’ve identified, but he won’t be the last,” said Art Eisenberg, PhD, director of the DNA Identity Lab at UNT Health Science Center. “As more samples are submitted, our ability to identify missing family members will grow as well.”
Soon after the body was found, the Lynn County Sheriff’s Office submitted skeletal remains to the DNA Identity Lab. Analysts processed the skeletal samples for the standard panel of nuclear DNA markers used by the forensic community and for mitochondrial DNA, which is inherited from the mother. The results were then uploaded as unidentified remains into the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) database.
Meanwhile, the Dawson County Sheriff’s Office submitted family reference samples from Gomez’ mother to the lab for inclusion in the Texas Missing Persons DNA Database. After the samples were processed, a database search in July gave the first scientific clue that these cases may be linked. Additional DNA testing confirmed Gomez’ identity.
“Every sample submitted to the database undergoes the same process,” said John Planz, PhD, associate director of the lab. “The investigators may have suspicions or clues to the identity of the remains, but we rely only on the results of our analysis.”
Texas is the only state to operate its own Missing Persons DNA Database as an additional tool for investigators trying to locate missing persons or identify remains. The project compares DNA samples from family members of missing persons with samples from unidentified bodies, at no charge to law enforcement agencies or the families.
The state legislature established the Texas Missing Persons DNA Database in 2001 with funding from the Texas Crime Victims’ Compensation Fund. The database began accepting samples from Texas law enforcement agencies earlier this year.
The health science center’s DNA Identity Lab has provided scientific and technical support for Texas law enforcement agencies and crime labs for more than 10 years, including paternity testing, forensic genetic screening and DNA testing. The lab is among the few able to conduct mitochondrial forensic DNA analysis and the only state laboratory that can submit mitochondrial DNA profiles directly to the FBI.
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