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Students working on Tampa Bay cold cases

TAMPA, Fla. -- He was just a boy. He might have been as young as 12 or maybe old enough to drive, but by the time his body was found by a man looking for bottles in Palmetto it was too late to know for sure.

Even at that tender age, the bones on his hands bore the marks of heavy labor. A prepaid phone card that had been used to place calls to Guatemala was found stuck in his pocket of his distinctive jeans -- blue with a black and yellow Ice Pole USA logo running down the leg. He probably worked in one of the produce packing plants nearby, but two years after the grisly discovery investigators still don’t know who he is. Somewhere, a family is probably wondering what happened to the son they sent north to work.

Now, a new effort at the University of South Florida might just find some answers.

To help identify the victims and possibly solve a criminal case, Tampa Bay Cold Case Project was created through partnerships with the Department of Anthropology assistant professors Heide Castañeda and Erin Kimmerle, the students worked with their professors to investigate cultural, legal and biological challenges of missing and endangered people as a global phenomenon.

They developed relationships with local law enforcement and medical examiners offices, migrant communities and organizations like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), Student/Farmworker Alliance, and the Mexico Solidarity Network.

Students helped collect bone and enamel samples for isotopic analysis and wrote profiles for five unidentified victims -- some of the 80 people who have been found dead in the Tampa Bay region and never identified.

They also authored narratives describing where the person was found, what their clothing looked like, their estimated age, gender and ethnicity and any other identifying information that could help families come forward to identify their missing loved ones or maybe jog a witness’ memory.

The problem, Castañeda said, is that many of the missing individuals are from vulnerable populations such as migrant communities or the homeless. Establishing connections in these communities will help identify bodies that would otherwise have remained John and Jane Does.

Florida also is considered a hotbed for human trafficking, often referred to as “modern slavery.” Castañeda said it’s because of the state being an international hub, a tourist destination and a home to many immigrants.

Data from unsolved, unidentified cases gets put into law enforcement agencies’ databases but that information is probably not easily accessible to most people, including the families of those missing, Kimmerle said.

“You have to have a computer and be able to speak English, and we can’t assume everyone has that same access,” Kimmerle said.

Graduate student Liotta Noche-Dowdy said the work they’ve helped do in the class all leads to identifying those who have been wronged so their family can have closure and justice can be brought.

“[The family] may be just in the next state -- Georgia instead of Florida -- and that family member may still be looking for them,” Noche-Dowdy said. “A year or so ago, I met a young girl and I remember hearing her say: ‘Well, their parents should have known she’s dead, she’s been missing for 10 years.’ No parent would ever wish that. You’re always wishing that person you love will come back home, and you still have to have some sort of closure.”

Castañeda said it’s important for the students to be involved in the process of identifying cold case remains. Not only does it help them hone their skills as biological and cultural anthropologists, but it also allows each student to bring their individual strengths to the table to help the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s office and other agencies.

“Service-learning is not just about students volunteering their hours,” Castañeda said. “We wanted to make sure they applied their skills as anthropologists.”


Filed under:Arts and Sciences Anthropology School of Social Sciences   
Author: Daylina Miller