Gila Bend's Dead Body Problem

Gila Bend's Dead Body Problem
Wikimedia Commons/Karen Funk Blocher

Does Gila Bend have a dead body problem? An examination of Maricopa County Medical Examiner's data indicates yes.

The medical examiner's Unidentified Persons Bureau offers a public database listing every unidentifiable body found in the county since 1970. Since that time, the database records 260 unidentified male bodies and 40 unidentified female bodies found within county limits, adding up to an even 300.

The database's details on these bodies are sometimes thin, sometimes rich, and always sad.

"Every unidentified body is a missing person," a sign in the examiner's office reads. Some cases stem from the discovery of a single skull or femur, often decayed for decades. Others list details down to the color of a deceased person's underwear, or the name on an ID that turned out to be fake.

But dig a little deeper, and you'll notice a disturbing pattern of descriptions in recent years:

"in a desert area near Gila Bend" "a wash in a remote area near Gila Bend" "in a desert area near Gila Bend" "covered in mud in a wash in Gila Bend" "in a desert area near Gila Bend"

See also: -Joe Arpaio's White Crosses: Where Are the Ones for Joe's Victims?

Over and over again, Maricopa County's unidentified bodies are discovered in the desert outskirts of one small town: Gila Bend.

Of the 45 unidentified bodies--three female and 42 male--found in Maricopa County since 2010, nearly half were found in Gila Bend. The area surrounding the town of less than 2,000 was the discovery site of at least 21 unidentified bodies during that time period.

And there's a chance even more came from the region. When the Medical Examiner's Office determines a body's identity, the case remains in the database but is marked as solved, and details about where the body was found are no longer listed. Solved cases account for almost one-fourth of the 45 cases since 2010, meaning the percentage of unidentified bodies found near Gila Bend could be even higher.

No matter the exact count, the numbers are bad. In 2014 alone, three of the six unidentified bodies found in all of Maricopa County were discovered near Gila Bend. And don't forget, these are just the unidentifiable bodies.

Gila Bend's bodies fit a type: the majority are men, the majority are Latino, and the majority are young. Though over 100 miles separate Gila Bend from the closest point on the border, it's likely that many of the young men found in Gila Bend's desert are dying from the harsh climate they experience as they cross from Mexico into Arizona.

"We can only surmise the harsh weather coupled with drug/human trafficking is the reason for the number of bodies found in the desert," says Deputy Christopher Hegstrom, a Maricopa County Sheriff's Office spokesman.

So what is being done about this hotbed of death?

Gila Bend contracts its police services from the MCSO. Sheriff Joe Arpaio [in]famously began a program last summer in which deputies place numbered crosses in the desert locations where bodies are found. The program is meant to serve two purposes. First, Arpaio hopes the graveyard appearance resulting from the crosses will deter would-be desert crossers (assuming they are conducting Google image searches of Gila Bend's terrain prior to their travel). And, second, because each numbered cross is linked to precise GPS coordinates, they serve as a way for the MCSO to more easily send help to those in distress (assuming these folks have cell phones).

Since last summer, Arpaio's efforts don't seem to have shifted.

"As for our solution, we have been placing crosses as a means to underscore the dangers of hiking this rough terrain during the summer months," Hegstrom said. "In addition, sheriff's deputies have been summoned numerous times to the desert outside Gila Bend to assist people who are in distress and we will continue to do so."

So far, these efforts haven't had a major effect on the numbers. Over the weekend, another unidentified body was found in the desert outside Gila Bend. It hasn't yet been added to the database.

The town of Gila Bend did not return a request for comment.

Got a tip? Send it to: Ashley Cusick.

Follow Valley Fever on Twitter at @ValleyFeverPHX. Follow Ashley Cusick on Twitter at @AshleyBCusick.

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