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New fingerprint ID program helps families lay missing to rest

Officials are using a special fingerprint identification program, and DNA analysis, to identify remains of unclaimed bodies.

Bradley Adams, a forensic anthropologist for the New

Bradley Adams, a forensic anthropologist for the New York City Office of Chief Medical Examiner, uses DNA analysis to help identify remains. Photo Credit: Aja Worthy-Davis

Meir Beck was one of those gentle, unobtrusive souls whom residents of the Williamsburg community in Brooklyn remember with affection.

The local Jewish press described him a 42-year-old devoted Jew who liked to attend weddings and frequented study rooms in local synagogues.

“He was very quiet and smiling all day,” recalled Mayer Berger, a neighborhood rabbi who knew Beck.

In February 2000, he disappeared without a trace, and despite efforts by his family and friends to find him, Beck remained missing for 13 years — until the NYPD and the New York City Office of Chief Medical Examiner discovered he had died suddenly after showing up in a hospital emergency room.

The cause of death, according to his sister Rivka Fulda of Baltimore was a perforated ulcer.

Beck was not carrying identification, making notifying his next of kin impossible. When his body was not claimed, it was sent to Hart Island, the burial place of last resort for the missing, unidentified or unclaimed, officials said.

Over the decades, unknowns such as Beck buried on Hart Island might never be identified. But now officials are using a special fingerprint identification program, as well as DNA analysis, to identify remains and give families the option of a private burial.

The program can provide hope for families of those who died anonymously. Officials also are using emerging stable-isotope technology to help trace a person’s migration before they died in New York City.

In Beck’s case, officials ran fingerprints taken just before he was buried through a series of databases and, using refined techniques, they found a match, Fulda recalled. It was then that the NYPD contacted Beck’s family so his body, which had been underground at Hart Island more than a decade, could be given a proper Jewish burial.

There are thousands of unidentified bodies buried on Hart Island, the sand spit of land just off City Island in the Bronx and due west of Sands Point. In 2012, the city medical examiner and the NYPD began taking a look at about 1,100 unknown deceased buried on Hart Island as far back as 1990 and retrieved 554 fingerprint cards made at the time of internment, according to city officials. Running the prints through local, state and federal databases so far has resulted in 139 matches, said a spokeswoman for Dr. Barbara Sampson, New York City’s chief medical examiner. Beck became one of those matches.

“It was pretty amazing,” said Fulda in a telephone interview about the notification she received about the match from the NYPD. “We had been looking for him for 13 years.”

Yet, Fulda said she needed more confirmation that the body was her brother’s. A look at photographs taken at time of death and a DNA test confirmed for Fulda that her brother had been found.

Berger, director of operations for Chesed Shel Emes, an organization that takes care of Jewish burials for people without families, said Becker’s body was retrieved from Hart Island. His remains were wrapped in a traditional Jewish burial shroud and buried at Beth Moses Cemetery in Farmingdale, he said.

Officials also are using DNA sampling to help in the identification of the Hart Island unknowns, although the matches have been smaller than with the fingerprints. After about 440 exhumations, experts were able to retrieve viable DNA profiles in 378 cases, leading to 33 identifications of remains that were reunited with the families, the medical examiner’s office said.

Bradley Adams, a forensic anthropologist for the medical examiner’s office, said a specialized federal grant has allowed for 50 disinterments for DNA sampling, as well as anthropological analysis of skeletal remains. Bones, Adams said, can be very helpful in providing DNA once soft tissue deteriorates.

Adams said he also is using grant money for stable isotope analysis on about 50 bodies. Isotope analysis measures the variation of certain elements in hair and bone through food and water consumption, levels that can show where a person lived before death. Adams said there are a couple of stable isotope cases that might prove useful in identifying people.

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