UNT Health Science Center’s Roby helps identify bodies of Chile’s Patio 29

Rhonda Roby, PhD, MPH, associate professor and project coordinator for the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification at UNT Health Science Center, was instrumental in recently identifying three murder victims of the Chilean Pinochet coup, buried in the Patio 29 cemetery.

The Chilean government contacted Roby in 2006 to be the lead geneticist for a process audit team of the victims’ identification program for Patio 29. After joining the team also consisting of an anthropologist, odontologist, and medical examiner, Roby recommended the Health Science Center lab to perform the DNA analysis for the Chilean government. The UNT Center for Human Identification was able to report family associations for Pablo Aranda Schmied, Waldemar Monsalve Toledo, and Nelson Muñoz Torres with 99.99 posterior probability. All three were killed during General Augusto Pinochet’s ascension to power, which began Sept. 11, 1973.

To insure accurate identification testing, Roby followed a strict protocol for cutting the bones of exhumed bodies. The UNT Center for Human Identification used the process modeled after that of the existing successful Missing Persons Program.

The Health Science Center has many key players in the genetic analysis process. Dixie Peters, technical leader for the Missing Persons Program, and her team compile databases of bone samples from unidentified remains and family references from relatives of victims, comparing them to one another. Melody Josserand, Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) administrator, uses a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) software program to search for matches in DNA. Roby then independently reviews the results from the lab, writes a summary report to the Human Rights Program of the Chilean government explaining what the results mean, and if results allow, writes a subsequent report to the Chilean government recommending identification.

"This has been an exciting path that will continue to produce results," Roby said. "We continually discover more to help us identify victims and I feel confident that more identifications will be made in the near future."

In addition to her work in Chile, Roby has played a large role in identifying Czar Nicholas II and the Romanov family, Vietnam War soldiers, and 9-11 World Trade Center victims.

"I can’t imagine what it would be like to lose a member of my family and it is incredibly fulfilling to help others find the truth. Everyone deserves to have their story, however tragic, told."

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