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Family of missing people can provide DNA to link to remains

A jaw is examined in a Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension laboratory after it was exhumed last year from Oakland Cemetery in St. Paul. DNA was taken from this and remains of four other unidentified people in an attempt to find their identities. Bureau of Criminal Apprehension photo1 / 3
Deputy Superintendent Catherine Knutson of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension holds up a swab on Tuesday, July 11, 2017, to illustrate how family members of missing people can provide DNA. That DNA can be compared to a database of remains of unidentified people. Don Davis / Forum News Service2 / 3
Authorities opened this Oakland Cemetery grave in St. Paul last year as they tried to identify an unknown person buried there. It was one of five exhumations. Bureau of Criminal Apprehension photo3 / 3

ST. PAUL -- Frustrated families of people who have gone missing have a chance to help law enforcement officials find their loves ones remains: provide DNA.

Authorities have taken DNA samples from remains of unidentified people around the country and entered results in a database. That DNA can be linked to close blood relatives' DNA.

“While a result like this is not what families hope for, it can help them move forward," Superintendent Drew Evans of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension said Tuesday, July 11.

In Minnesota alone, more than 100 unidentified bodies are buried, Evans said.

"They were buried without names, and with no answered for their loved ones," Evans said. "The BCA is attempting to change that."

The BCA plans four opportunities around the state, starting Saturday in St. Paul, for people to provide DNA that authorities will put into a nationwide database to see if it matches unidentified remains that could be anywhere in the country.

DNA carries genetic information in cells. Close blood relatives' DNA can help establish a link to unidentified remains.

Providing a DNA sample involves using a cotton swab to take a sample from the inside of a cheek.

Since the program to match family members' DNA with unidentified remains started four years ago, the BCA  has identified remains of two Minneapolis residents and three from other states.

Deputy BCA Superintendent Catherine Knutson said DNA may identify people's remains that are many years old.

"It doesn’t matter how long they have been missing," Knutson said. "Providing a sample if the first step in answering questions."

She said DNA had been collected from most unidentified bodies buried since about 1991. But remains buried before that must be exhumed and tested.

Remains of five unknown people were exhumed last year from Ramsey County cemeteries, but their DNA did not match any state or national databases. The state may have enough federal money to exhume four more bodies.

Evans said the five were picked because authorities thought they had the best chance of matching a family member's DNA sample.

The state has DNA from about half of the sets of the 100 unidentified remains buried around the state.

It is an expensive process. The BCA reports that the National Institute of Justice granted Minnesota $133,434 to cover the cost of exhuming, testing and reinterment of nine sets of remains, as well as testing family members' DNA.

Knutson urged family members of missing persons to come forward.

The first chance for families to provide DNA comes 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at BCA headquarters, 1430 Maryland Ave. E., St. Paul.

Others are 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. at the following locations:

  • July 18 at Duluth Police Department, 2030 N. Arlington Ave.
  • July 19 at Bemidji BCA office, 3700 North Court Northwest.
  • July 27 at Mankato Public Safety Center, 710 S. Front St.

Evans said people who cannot get to one of those locations may contact the BCA for individual appointments.

Knutson said families who go to one of the scheduled DNA collection events should take with them the name, date of birth, photographs, dental records and any other information they have on the missing person. It also is important, she said, to take any items that may be available that could have his or her DNA, such as a toothbrush, razor, tooth retainer, watch or other items that may have contacted the person.

The program is funded by federal and state money and does not cost the family.

Family members could know as early as late summer if their DNA matches information in the national missing persons database.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.
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