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Medical examiner to hold event in hopes of identifying missing persons

Friday, May 12, 2017
Chicago Tribune
by Jeremy Gorner

An African-American woman, thought to be in her 50s, was found dead on Chicago's Near North Side in July 2013.

Within a day, the Cook County medical examiner's office was able to determine through an autopsy that she died of coronary artery disease, a common cause of death in America.

But nearly four years later, the body remains unidentified. Did she have children? A husband? Have other family members been searching for her this whole time? Questions linger. Answers are scarce.

For the first time, the Cook County medical examiner's office will host a "Missing Persons Day" next weekend at its Near West Side facility, an event that Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Ponni Arunkumar hopes will help family members unravel mysteries about their loved ones who have disappeared without any explanation.

"We're hoping that we can provide closure to some families," said Arunkumar, who was appointed by the Cook County Board last July to head the office. "We want to try to identify all the unknowns, especially since the last few years we've been doing ... all the studies we can and yet we're not able to identify all of them."`

Family members whose relatives have been missing for more than a month will have the opportunity to provide Arunkumar and her staff with dental records, medical records and X-rays that may help the office's forensic pathologists determine if there's a match on any of the morgue's unidentified bodies.

Family members at the event can also submit their own DNA through a "buccal swab." Samples of saliva are collected by swabbing from the inside of a person's cheek and later checked against a DNA database for any unidentified remains.

Chicago police, Illinois State Police and Cook County sheriff's police personnel will be on hand if families want to file missing persons reports on the spot, Arunkumar said.

The event is scheduled for 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, May 20.

There's always a chance, Arunkumar said, that missing loved ones might still be alive.

Arunkumar, also a forensic pathologist at the medical examiner's office for about 14 years, said families call the office regularly inquiring about missing loved ones, not knowing if they're dead or alive.

Her office will often receive bodies that are initially unidentified, she said, but they're usually identified at some point through fingerprints, dental records, photographs, anthropological studies or DNA. Still, at the end of each year, the office will retain an average of five to 10 bodies that staffers were not able to identify, she said. The office also has a portion of its website dedicated to those who are unidentified.

Arunkumar couldn't say how many families are expected to show up at Saturday's event but acknowledged the uncertainly about whether they'll be able to get the answers they want right away.

"We'll try to help them out. We'll ask them since when they (went) missing (and) try to remember whether we have an independent recollection of the case," she said. "If we're able to help one family, that would be great."

Arunkumar got the idea for the Missing Persons Day after talking to the New York City's medical examiner's office, which is about to hold its third such event on the same day as Cook County's.

Mark Desire, the office's assistant director for the department of forensic biology, said the event draws about 75 families. The office started organizing the event as DNA identification technology became more advanced since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, he said.

With thousands of human remains recovered from the rubble at ground zero, New York recognized the need for a full-time DNA missing persons unit at the city's morgue, he said.

"We got really good at generating DNA from bone, from remains," he said. "We had all these DNA profiles from all these unknowns, but we didn't have any DNA samples from families. So how are we going to get DNA samples from these individuals?"

Desire said his office also got the idea for the event after looking at a number of unidentified bodies buried in a city cemetery in the Bronx since the 1980s. Those bodies, he said, had never undergone DNA testing.

Desire said the two events so far have helped solve about eight cases ó all instances in which family members of missing people attended and provided DNA samples that were compared to human remains. He said New York City police officers are on hand at the event along with grief counselors, chaplains and not-for-profit groups that advocate for missing people.

Desire, who called the issue of missing persons "a national problem," said he doesn't know if families can ever truly find closure after learning their long-lost relative is dead.

"Family is always going to miss that loved one," Desire said. "But having something physically returned to them or giving them answers that, 'OK, you've identified my relative and they are deceased after all these years,' I know that does bring answers. And that's our job to bring answers about what happened."

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