If you drive by the United Memorial Gardens in Plymouth this week you may see something unusual. The FBI and Detroit police are out working with teams exhuming bodies. It is part of something called Operation United.
It was the idea of one woman. A sergeant in Detroit’s Homicide Division looked at two walls in her office every day. A wall of families looking for loved ones, and a wall of unidentified people buried in cemeteries that police are working to identify.
“It became frustrating. I am looking at this wall every day. All these cases. Hundreds of them. And I know their families are on the other side of the wall. I just can’t prove it without DNA,” said Sgt. Shannon Jones.
Before 2013 it was not standard procedure to get the DNA of unidentified people buried in so-called paupers' graves. The city had 100 people buried between 1959 and 2013 that it was working to identify. Sgt. Jones asked for help carrying out an idea and the FBI said yes.
They started the intensive work of locating remains, exhuming them, and collecting DNA last year. Last year, they focused on 21 cases and we were able to collect thirteen samples and submit them. It allowed them to help a man who submitted his DNA, hoping a relative’s match in a missing person database would help him find his mom. She went missing when he was a young child. Only now does he know, she was murdered.
“His mom didn’t leave him," Sgt. Jones said. "She didn’t just up and decide she didn’t want a kid anymore. Something tragic happened to her."
Sgt. Jones said letting that man know that means the world to her. She says if you have a missing relative you can put your DNA in the system and look for a match.
“He never gave up and this was in 1987," she said. "So even though it took 30-plus years, he now at least has his mom."
These exhumations are just the beginning. While some of the unidentified people died of natural causes, others are murder victims. Once people are identified it can result in leads for homicide detectives.
The FBI says it is now hearing from other communities that want to follow the lead of the Detroit Public Safety Headquarters and collect DNA that could hold all the answers for a family searching for answers.