When Leslie Kaufman walks through the forensics lab at N.C. State University, she sees a space that is sterile and clean — and filled with human remains.
Tables are set up throughout the room and at any given time, there could be two or three sets of human remains on display for students to examine, each with the bones in proper order so they can determine age, sex and in some cases, time of death.
The room is filled with boxes of bones, each tagged with numbers — not names.
Kaufman sees more than bones. She sees people, often those who lived on the edges of society, who were discovered dead but unidentified.
Kaufman runs her own company as a forensic genealogist. However, she has another job, one that doesn’t pay, as a co-founder of the North Carolina Unidentified Project. The project works to give names and identities back to the state’s 130 unidentified bodies.
People are also reading…
Recently, officials announced the program had identified Napoleon McNeil, in a case going back 13 years — one of seven people Kaufman’s organization has identified since 2020, when the project began.
Working with police, the team’s ability to solve the mystery of identities helped close three homicide cases and bring closure to loved ones of four people who died, including two who died by suicide.
In Charlotte, there are still 10 of these cases yet to be solved. The main challenge is funding. It costs more than $5,500 to identify one person.
DNA matching to unidentified bodies
The first step when police find human remains is to send those remains to the medical examiner, Kaufman said. Then the examiner takes down the person’s height, sex, and sometimes determines their ethnicity based on the structure of the bones. They then try to match them with any missing persons who fit the description.
If they can’t determine who the person is, they send them to Dr. Ann Ross, Kaufman’s co-founder who runs the lab at N.C. State. She then builds osteological and biological profiles of the remains.
These findings are sometimes detailed enough to tell where a person lived in their lifetime.
“Like one case I’m working on right now, I have a biological profile and osteological profile and we have an isotope analysis, which told me and Dr. Ross, (...) that this person was probably born in Central Texas, and then migrated up the East Coast, probably Georgia, Florida area, before they were here in North Carolina,” Kaufman said.
To analyze the person’s DNA and match them with a family tree, they work with Othram Labs to extract the DNA sample that is then given to Kaufman to match through databases like GEDmatch PRO and Family Tree DNA.
The databases, the testing, and DNA extractions aren’t cheap, Kaufman said.
In the case of McNeil, who had been unidentified after disappearing from the Raleigh area in 2009, Charlotte-Mecklenburg police paid the initial $650 cost for Kaufman’s group to upload his DNA.
Several months later, the team discovered relatives of the unidentified person who confirmed the identity of McNeil.
McNeil was 45 and police say he was likely homeless at the time of his death. There is no indication of foul play, police said.
“The work of the NC Unidentified Project provided much-needed closure and relief to the family of Mr. McNeil at little cost to the CMPD,” police said.
The police department agreed to become the project’s official partner and the group is working with the Violent Crimes Division and Cold Case Unit to identify the other 10 individuals.
The project relies on partnerships, grants and donations to help them complete the identifications. They have a GoFundMe and as of Saturday, it had raised $1,950.
A UNC grant provided funding for the first 13 remains, but now the group is seeking additional funding, according to the GoFundMe. There is no funding for police or the state to identify unidentified persons unless it is a suspected homicide, Kaufman said.
A national disaster
The number of unidentified persons found dead nationwide is the “nation’s silent mass disaster,” according to The National Missing and Unidentified Persons System.
Over 600,000 people go missing and 4,400 unidentified bodies are recovered in the U.S. each year, according to NAMUs.
As of June, there were 14,062 unidentified dead people in the country, according to NAMUs.
After the NC Unidentified Project identifies the state’s approximately 130 remains, they hope to expand their efforts nationally, according to the GoFundMe.
Kaufman says 130 doesn’t sound like a lot, but when you see the boxes filled with bones, you realize just how much it really is.
“Every one of those people, every one of those boxes is a person,” Kaufman said. “I just refuse to dehumanize them.”