Monday, November 3, 2008

Problems with staffing, medical records, decay slow ID process

By LISE OLSEN
Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle
Oct. 29, 2008, 8:38AM

FOUR VICTIMS OF IKE REMAIN UNIDENTIFIED
• Oct. 25: An older white male found on a jetty near Port Bolivar.
• Oct. 6: A white male, 5-foot-7 to 5-foot-10, found on Goat Island.
• Oct. 4: Elderly woman, 4-foot-11 to 5-foot-2, with missing teeth and possible limp, found on Goat Island.
• Sept. 28: Woman, 30 to 50 years old, 4-foot-10 to 5-foot-1, wearing a black Bally jog bra and a white sock, has one webbed toe and a 7-inch abdominal scar, found on Pelican Island.
If you have information about a Hurricane Ike missing person, call the Laura Recovery Center at 866-898-5723 or 281-482-5723. To arrange to submit DNA samples or supply dental or medical X-rays, call the Galveston County Medical Examiner at 409-935-9274.
It took 18 days for the Galveston medical examiner's office to positively identify the body of 33-year-old Shane Williams by using a partial fingerprint from his index finger — just one of several complications hindering efforts to identify nameless Hurricane Ike victims in the county morgue.
The work has been stymied by limited investigative manpower, the deteriorated condition of the bodies, scattered families, and obstacles in obtaining dental and medical records from doctors in Galveston whose offices are still closed.
''It doesn't matter who is in the freezer at the ME's office, but they need to be identified and the families need to be told," said Fred Walters, who is Shane Williams' half brother and is still looking for his missing mother and grandmother. "It seems to me there should be a better way."
So far, Galveston Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Stephen Pustilnik has elected to tackle cases with his own team rather than asking for assistance from special federal forensics experts who can be deployed in disasters.
''Right now, (bodies) are coming in at a rate we can handle," said Pustilnik, who has worked with federal disaster teams. "We have access to an anthropologist, an odontologist, we have X-rayed the bodies, we have DNA kits here. If the county starts excavating debris and finding bodies left, right and sideways — I'll call them."
Four more bodies considered to be Bolivar Peninsula storm victims remain unidentified and at least 15 people from the area remain missing. The latest body was discovered Saturday by fishermen on a jetty off Port Bolivar.
Galveston County emergency management officials are just now seeking bids for a contractor to follow up in excavating debris piles that could hold additional bodies based on preliminary searches by cadaver dog teams.
Dental records help out
Williams' body was among three found by searchers among alligators and storm debris on uninhabited Goat Island on Oct.3. Investigators tentatively identified him based on his age, size and long hair. They got a partial print from his index finger, but it took three experts to make sure the print matched an older smudged fingerprint. The confirmation came last week.
Williams disappeared Sept. 12 when he attempted to evacuate from Port Bolivar around dawn with his mother, his 79-year-old grandmother, and two neighbors. The others remain missing.
John Florence, spokesman for the Galveston County Medical Examiner's office, has urged families of all Ike missing persons to try to locate dental records and X-rays or to submit DNA samples.
Records like fingerprints or X-rays — once obtained — could confirm identities quickly. X-rays reveal unique structures in bones or teeth that can be used to identify bodies that otherwise appear unrecognizable. Verification through relatives' DNA samples would take longer.
Williams' family believes that one of the unidentified women could be his missing grandmother — Marion Violet Arrambide.
But they have so far been unable to obtain X-rays from a Galveston dental office, which was flooded and remains closed, or get medical records from the University of Texas Medical Branch, where Arrambide worked as a nurse for 28 years. The records office only recently reopened.
Because of privacy laws, doctors and dentists are sometimes reluctant to even confirm someone was a patient without a subpoena, family members said.
Similar obstacles beset another Jane Doe storm case, Florence said.
For several weeks, forensic investigators believed they had identified a woman whose body was found on Pelican Island last month. But when Florence was able to obtain 6-year-old X-rays at another storm-damaged Galveston dentist's office, they didn't match. Florence has had to start over.
Moving faster
Medical examiner officials are hoping to find an answer more quickly for the latest storm victim's body — an older white man found Saturday on a jetty by two fishermen looking for flounder.
Pustilnek said his office was able to obtain a thumbprint that — with luck — could be used to find a match with Texas drivers' licenses.
lise.olsen@chron.com

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