An expert at the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification works with the bone of an unidentified person to extract a DNA sample in this undated image. The UNT program supported law enforcement nationwide, especially with skeletal remains, until its $1 million NIJ grant was cut earlier this year. Several investigators told Forensic Magazine that the loss of the program has slowed death investigation to a crawl. (Photo: Courtesy UNTHSC)

The cardboard box sits on the desk of Sgt. Sarah Krebs, a detective sergeant who heads the Michigan State Police’s Missing Persons Unit. In it are more than a dozen DNA samples of unidentified persons in the state, unsolved cases for which there is a crucial genetic clue that could mean a future breakthrough.

In previous years, Krebs would send the samples to the national clearinghouse at the University of North Texas Health Science Center, which accepts out-of-state samples to help identify the nameless dead. But this year she can’t. A crucial $1 million in funding from the federal National Institute of Justice was removed earlier this year, and state and local agencies can no longer get the free testing they have come to expect.

So detectives like Krebs across the nation are forced to make a decision: either don’t do the testing—or store the crucial evidence until they may be able to continue their investigations.

“What else do you do?” said Krebs recently, talking about the box of DNA samples from unknown decedents on her desk.

The UNT Center for Human Identification had become a crucial pipeline in unidentified and missing persons investigations over the last decade. Roughly 1,200 out-of-state samples were submitted to the laboratory last year, according to numbers obtained by The Center for Investigative Reporting. Investigators from state and local agencies who had unknown bodies could count on sending their samples to UNT and getting the testing done at what had become a forensic standard for American law enforcement.

NIJ did not immediately return a request for comment on the funding, which was cut in March. Several reports indicate that funding was instead increased to test the massive backlog of rape kits nationwide—a venture that has already drawn hundreds of millions of federal and local dollars.

The unidentified DNA program at UNT became especially busy with the consistent expansion of NamUs, the national database for matching missing and unidentified persons, which was started in 2006. (NamUs is still funded by the NIJ, in a separate revenue stream.) Dental and fingerprint records are important to the information trove in this database, said J. Todd Matthews, the director of case management and communications for NamUs.

But the DNA has become a linchpin in the toughest cases, Matthews said. The withdrawal of the UNT service—which investigators had come to count on over the years—has been an acute loss, he added.

“It’s such a small amount of money—but so many people are so dependent on it,” said Matthews.

UNT became especially good at the tough cases because of their experience, said Suzanna Ryan, a forensic DNA expert based in California.

“They work with a lot of bone samples—and not everybody in the forensic field has a lot of experience in bones,” said Ryan. “And there’s the mitochondrial aspect. There are very few labs that do mitochondrial testing.”

Only seven states have laboratories that can do the kind of advanced mitochondrial work UNT can provide, Krebs and some other experts said. Mitochondrial is incredibly sensitive, and practically requires its own lab-within-a-lab to prevent contamination, Ryan explained.

The combination of bone work, mitochondrial capacity and sheer experience-through-volume is what investigators nationwide came to expect from UNT. Nearly all report the loss as slowing investigations to a standstill.

“This is a loss—taking away that grant funding from UNT,” Ryan said. “Just the sheer number of unidentified remains … There are so many. NamUs is just a great resource to begin with—but we need to be able to continue to put those profiles into that system if we want to continue to identify individuals.”

Sgt. Joel Trella, of the New Jersey State Police’s Missing Persons Unit, said the loss of UNT money would negatively impact their caseload. But he said the biometric information is so crucial to their cases that they would find a way to get the testing done, even if UNT remains unfunded. Negotiations about how to get the testing done continue, he told Forensic Magazine. Several samples are pending submission, Trella added. 

“We’ll get them tested,” the sergeant said.

Matthews, of NamUs, is similarly sanguine about UNT getting its testing capacity back. (Several reports indicate that as much as 80 percent of the work at the UNT Center for Human Identification was out-of-state requests that were covered by the grant.) Matthews said the lab’s work is too important to just be abandoned.

“I believe our DNA program will be funded again,” he said. “I feel like we’ll be able to get that lab moving again.”

In the meantime, in Michigan, that box still sits on Sarah Krebs’ desk. The detective sergeant said she will try to get them tested—she just isn’t sure yet how.

“It’s really troubling. It’s incredibly crippling,” said Krebs. “I’ve worked these cases long enough to know these cases are not going to get solved without DNA.”