Four of five men found slain in the desert west of Tucson last summer were shot in the back and several of them had their wrists bound with laces, likely from their own shoes, autopsy reports released this week show.
The condition of the mostly skeletal remains prevented the Pima County medical examiner from determining the cause of death for the fifth victim but it was ruled a “homicide by unspecified means.”
The unidentified bodies had been in the desert for six months to a year before being discovered by Border Patrol agents May 28.
Agents discovered two gravesites close together, about 12 miles northwest of Sells on the Tohono O’odham Reservation in an area often used by smugglers. The remains were wrapped in plastic tarps and partially buried by large rocks and boulders.
“These guys probably were lined up and shot and buried in that kind of remote location so what was going on one can imagine,” said Dr. Greg Hess, chief medical examiner for Pima County.
Employees with the medical examiner’s office sometimes go to crime scenes outside Pima County to assist with exhumations at the request of law enforcement agencies, however, the Tohono O’odham Police Department did not ask the office for help in collecting the remains, Hess said.
Instead, the sites were excavated May 29 by members of the Tohono O’odham Police Department. Officers took the remains, clothing and other effects to the police department in Sells where they were photographed before bringing them to the medical examiner’s office in Tucson, the autopsy report said.
As a result, at some point, “either during exhumation of the gravesites, collection of the surface scatter, during law enforcement examination in Sells, or all three,” some of the remains, clothing and personal effects from the two gravesites were mixed together by the police officers, the autopsy stated.
Tohono O’odham officers returned to the gravesites June 5 to recover additional skeletal remains that likely were scattered by animals.
Hess downplayed the mishandling of the remains by police.
“In the end it probably is not going to matter,” he said. “It just made it a little more work.
“Basically what you have is a jigsaw puzzle. You have to try to figure out what belongs to whom, skeletally,” he said.
Reconstruction of the skeletal remains led Hess and his staff to determine one of the victims may have been as young as 16 and two of the victims could have been as old as 55. They determined four of the five were shot in the back and two of them were shot in their legs, as well. At least three of the men had their wrists bound with shoelaces. Clothing was found with the remains, including several shoes missing laces, according to the autopsy report.
The men are listed as “American Indian” in the report, but Hess could not pinpoint whether they were North-, Central- or South American.
Several of the men had multiple healed broken bones, and one had a metal plate screwed into his jaw and “healed trauma to the left mid-face and the mandible … possibly due to a healed gunshot wound to the face,” the medical examiner’s report said. “This probably left a large facial scare to the left side of the face that would have been noticeable to those who knew the decedent.”
In late August, 15 skeletal samples were sent to an out-of-state lab for DNA testing. The results came back in mid-December and helped the medical examiner’s staff ensure the remains were assembled correctly. The results were also entered into CODIS — the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System — in hopes of determining the identity of the men, but no genetic matches were made, Hess said.
Messages left Friday for the Tohono O’odham Police Department and Police Chief Joseph Delgado were not returned.