Special Report: Identifying Unknown Human Remains


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An arrest has been made in a North Iowa murder case nearly 2 decades after it happened. And what’s really interesting about the arrest in the John Snyder Jr. murder is that DNA testing is being credited for helping solve the nearly 20-year-old cold case.

37-year-old Michael Cisneros is charged with the first degree murder of 20 month old John Snyder Jr. after DNA samples Cisneros had to submit in a different case, matched the evidence found on the boy’s pajama bottoms.

This case is a prime example of how DNA and the advanced forensic technology that’s available today can help solve mysteries of the past.

According to the National Institute of Justice, 40,000 sets of  unidentified human remains are held in medical examiner’s offices across the country. And only about 15 % of those have been entered into the FBI’s missing person database.

But now, an effort is underway in Minnesota to identify these remains, and bring some answers to the families of the missing.

Right now, there are more than 160 Minnesotans who have been missing for more than a year. And there are at least 100 sets of unidentified human remains in the state. Now, the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension is working to connect the dots between the two, in hopes of getting some answers to these haunting questions.

Behind the walls of the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, sets of bones sit silently. But if you listen carefully, they whisper the stories of lives lived, and lives lost.

“Many of these people went missing in the ’70’s, ’80’s or ’90’s,” said Kris Rush, the manager of the BCA’s Missing and Unidentified Persons Clearinghouse.

On the walls of  Rush’s office are the faces of people who have been missing for years. And on her mind are their family members, who live each day wondering what happened to their loved one.

“It just leaves a hole in their family. It just doesn’t ever go away,” said Rush.

Part of Rush’s job is to try to bring these families some closure.

“Most of these families have just been really grateful for the opportunity to have a chance to find out what happened to their loved ones,” Rush said.

The BCA is working to identify the dozens of sets of unknown human remains in Minnesota. Many of these were discovered decades ago, when DNA testing was not available. Now, advanced forensic technology is breathing new life into old mysteries.

“We are now at a point where we have the capabilities to really truly be able to address these very challenging cases,” said Catherine Knutson, the Forensic Science Laboratory Director at the BCA.

She’s leading the group of scientists who are working to compare DNA from family members of the missing people to samples obtained from the remains.

“The real power in this project is obtaining as much genetic information as we can from these individuals, so they have the best chance of being matched up, if you will, with their relatives if they happen to have submitted a sample for upload into the national database,” said Knutson.

For the relatives of the missing people, providing a DNA sample is easier than you might think. It just involves swabbing the inside of your cheek with a cotton swab.

This effort is still in it’s early stages, and the DNA testing is just one piece of a very intricate puzzle.

“At this point in time, this sort of testing is not easy, it’s not fast, and it certainly is not inexpensive,” said Knutson.

But it’s providing hope that someday, the unsolved mysteries the bones hold will become a thing of the past.

“It’s just a matter of time before these types of challenging cases become the norm, and that every laboratory should be able to do this sort of testing,” Knutson said.

It also provides hope that the families of the missing people, who live in a lingering state of unknowing, will finally know some peace.

“That’s what we’re working to do. To help return their loved ones to their families, as well as make sure that their family member is not forgotten,” Rush said.

If you have a missing relative and would like to get involved in this process, you’re asked to contact Kris Rush of the Minnesota Missing & Unidentified Persons Clearinghouse. The phone number is 651-793-1118 or you can send an email to kris.rush@state.mn.us. From there,  you’ll be guided through the necessary steps, including submitting a DNA sample.

Another important note, relatives who provide DNA will only have it compared to the FBI’s national missing persons database. It will not be run through any other databases.

This effort is being funded through a grant from the National Institute of Justice.

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