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Pima County medical examiner exhumes 66 bodies to collect DNA, I.D. remains

Flowers stand beside grave sites at Pima County Cemetery
Posted at 1:53 PM, Dec 29, 2021

TUCSON, Ariz. (KGUN) — Sixty-six unidentified bodies have been exhumed from the Pima County Cemetery for DNA sampling, according to a memo this month from Pima County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Gregory Hess.

The Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner completed the exhumations from Jan. 2020 to Sep. 2021 as part of a $175,359 federal grant.

Hess says the bodies exhumed were buried in the cemetery between the 1960s and 2000. Now, he says, all unknown bodies buried in the cemetery during that period have had a DNA sample taken.

In the memo, Hess says his office pursued the grant in order to identify remains, furthering death investigations and bringing closure to families.

"We’re anxious to learn who some of these people might be," Hess said Wednesday. "And we had reached, I guess, a proverbial dead end on the investigation of these deaths without further information.”

The project also freed up 36 burial plots for future burial space at Pima County Cemetery, which Hess called "plot challenged."

Ten DNA samples were sent to the Pima County Sheriff's Department's Cold Case Unit to further investigations that had stalled.

However, the other DNA samples have not yet been sent to labs around the country because the pandemic is causing them logistical problems and long backlogs.

“They may be slowed because of their personnel problems or some of the reagents, or everything else that they do," Hess explained. "So everything is kind of part of that supply chain backlog that we seem to be experiencing.”

Hess hopes that the labs start accepting the new samples sometime in January, and for remains to be identified soon after.