Illegal immigrants often die anonymously in Southwest

By Ace Stryker

Associated Press

BLANDING, Utah — The foreigner is buried in a small-town cemetery, against a barbed-wire fence in an unmarked plot set aside for poor people.

He might be Mexican. He might be Guatemalan. But he’s simply called No. 8, a man with no name because his identity is still unknown, a year after he was killed in a car wreck with seven other illegal immigrants in southeastern Utah.

"This is the Garden of Eden of Utah down here," said Philip Palmer, coordinator at Blanding City Cemetery, referring to the mountain peaks in four states visible from the graveyard. "It’s a good place to put him."


More than 2,000 illegal immigrants have died in the Southwest since 2002, and many are nameless in death — buried as anonymous victims of heat stroke, car crashes or other calamities.

They typically carry no ID, just the clothes on their back and the dream of a life better than the one they left behind.

"They’re filling our morgues," said Todd Matthews of Livingston, Tenn., who works for the Doe Network, a volunteer organization that helps law enforcement with unidentified remains.

More than half of the border-crossing deaths in the Southwest since 2002 have occurred in Arizona’s Pima County, which includes Tucson, on the Arizona-Mexico border.

Bruce Anderson, a forensic anthropologist in Tucson, said a quarter of the victims there lack names. Many remains are little more than bleached bone after a few days in the sun, making them almost impossible to identify.

"They die in the middle of nowhere," Anderson said. "Most Americans die in their car, in their house, or with somebody they know."

In the case of No. 8, he apparently died in Utah among strangers.

It’s unknown when or how he entered the country. But on the night of April 15, 2007, he piled into a sport utility vehicle in Phoenix, joining 13 other people for a trip to St. Louis.


They crossed the Arizona-Utah state line at 3:30 a.m. At some point, the driver drifted out of his lane, overcorrected and lost control of the vehicle, sending it spinning onto its side.

The SUV rolled several times, and seven passengers were thrown from it. Eight people, all illegal immigrants, were killed.

The driver, Rigoberto Salas-Lopez, told agents he was paid $1,000 to drive the group. He pleaded guilty to transporting illegal aliens resulting in death and will be sentenced June 5 in federal court in Salt Lake City.

The body of No. 8 was transported more than 300 miles north to the Utah medical examiner’s office in Salt Lake City, where doctors took fingerprints, photographs and samples from his body. But prospects for identifying him became increasingly bleak.

"You can have a very fresh body, and still the person is unidentifiable because there are no leads as to who they might be," said Dr. Todd Grey, the state’s chief medical examiner. "There’s certainly not going to be a missing person’s report filed."

Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said agents worked with the Mexican and Guatemalan consulates. The bodies of three other unknown crash victims were eventually identified and sent home for burial, but No. 8 remained.

In Salt Lake City, the Mexican Consulate fed information from the medical examiner into a database but learned nothing. In Denver, the Guatemalan Consulate met the same result.

Experts said DNA will be the key to solving difficult cases in the future.


Lori Baker at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, has been building a DNA database since 2003. With DNA samples from Pima County, Ariz., and cooperation from the Mexican government, she has identified more than 70 dead illegal immigrants.

The process relies on relatives in Mexico telling authorities they haven’t heard from a loved one who was expected to cross the border. If they provide a blood sample, Baker runs it through her database to compare it to samples on file.

At a minimum, Baker hopes to develop a "genetic map" using indicators within DNA that could help identify someone’s native country.

"What we’re hoping is that by having this genetic profile and then having information from Mexico, we can say, ’Well, this person doesn’t look to be Mexican — genetically, they look to be Guatemalan,"’ she said.

But to many coroners, the DNA process seems expensive and the technology intimidating, Baker said.

By last fall, No. 8’s body had been in Salt Lake City for six months. No family members had stepped up to claim a missing relative fitting his description and circumstances.

That’s when Danny Palmer, funeral director at San Juan Mortuary, was called to pick up the body and return it to southeastern Utah for burial, just a few miles from where the crash occurred.

Palmer stored the body in the mortuary garage for about a week while the grave was prepared. San Juan County paid the $700 bill for the burial, and the mortuary donated a steel casket valued at $1,000.


There was no prayer, no ceremony as the body was laid to rest in plot 55 in the Blanding cemetery. No. 8 was recorded in cemetery records as "unknown male" — an immigrant who died thousands of miles from home and was finally buried Oct. 12.

"It felt a little bit hollow that there was no family. There was no noise," Danny Palmer recalled.

A local man who assisted, Mike Moses, said: "There was a heaviness that was there. All of us felt pretty helpless about what to do."

The men tied a rope around the casket to make it easier to remove if anyone ever does come looking. But for now, No. 8 will stay in Utah indefinitely.

"That’ll be his spot," Philip Palmer said.

What To Read Next
Get Local