With advancements in today’s forensics technology, determining the identity of a corpse can be done with just a minuscule amount of DNA, much less than even ten years ago. In one case, it also took the work of the Sacramento County Coroner’s Office, Detective Tony Rodarte of the Arizona Maricopa County Sheriff Department, and the detective work of Websleuths.com for one man to finally identify his long-lost-father. His search took more than 36 years.
In 1970, Joaquin Islas, age 29, left his wife and three children, and became a migrant worker. One of his sons, Hector Islas, was six years old. Islas never saw his family again.
The last phone call from Islas was in early 1980 when he indicated that he was in a medical center. No location was provided. His family never heard from him again.
Weeks later, on May 5, 1980, Islas flagged down a Southern Pacific Railroad Officer, in North Highlands. The officer took detailed notes about his discussion with Islas, which, decades later, would prove to be critical.
Two days later, Islas was found deceased in an almond orchard, yards from Antelope Road.
An autopsy was performed and the cause of death was determined to likely be liver failure. DNA was taken, as were photos. Items found on his body were logged. A sketch was made. And, in the end, all was stored, as “unidentified.”
Around the same time, In March, 1980, Hector, Islas’ son, now 16, began to search for his father. A letter to his father’s last known address was returned, indicating that Islas was no longer at that residence.
When the phone calls stopped, Islas’ family members took extensive steps to locate him, including: filing a missing person’s report in Nogales, AZ, visiting a Salvation Army and missing persons unit is Los Angeles, inquiring into the Social Security Administration, and the Arizona and California Offices of Vital Records. Neither office had records of Islas’ death, because his body, in Sacramento, had not been identifiable at the time of death.
In 2015, the Arizona Office of Vital Records connected Hector with Detective Tony Rodarte. Rodarte obtained DNA from Hector’s sister and aunt and placed the case, photos and details on missing persons’ websites, such as the North American Missing Person’s Network (NAMPN)
That was key.
On January 8, 2016, members of the website, Websleuths.com, started to discuss a new case
and the possible connection between the unidentified person in Sacramento
who died in 1980 (on the Coroner’s website) and the missing person on NAMPN
(entered by Detective Rodarte).
Less than two months later, March 19, 2016, Hector discovered the website, Websleuths.com, and the group’s discussion
and reached out to the Sacramento County Coroner’s Office. Deputy Coroner Caleb Shifflett asked Hector many questions; some crucial details from the railroad officer’s documentation did not match, but there was enough to spur the Coroner’s office to pursue the connection.
Sacramento County Deputy Coroner Heather Griffiths made arrangements to gather more DNA from Islas’ very old sample, and Hector provided a DNA sample to be compared with the DNA from the “unidentified” male sample. Because of the sophistication of today’s technology, this was all that was necessary to determine that the unidentified corpse was actually Hector’s father.
On September 14, 2016, Sacramento County Deputy Coroner Griffiths called Hector to inform him that it was a match. Finally, Hector knew what had happened to his father 36 years ago.