Wednesday, 30 September 2015

With 1,200 missing persons in Orange County, authorities reach out to families for DNA

For over 20 years, the identity of a human femur that washed ashore in Seal Beach and a jaw bone found elsewhere on the coast remained a mystery.

Meanwhile, the family of Percy Ray Carson wondered in anguish for two decades what had happened to the 26-year-old Long Beach resident and Army veteran, who disappeared while swimming off the coast of Huntington Beach on July 19, 1992.

It wasn’t until June that authorities connected the DNA of the remains with that of Carson’s family, identifying the bones as his.

Although Carson’s case was finally solved, another 1,200 active missing persons cases remain in Orange County, according to the Sheriff’s Department. About 100 human remains have been collected but never identified, sheriff’s Lt. Jeff Hallock said.

For the first time, Orange County coroner and law enforcement officials are reaching out to people with missing family members in a public event Saturday, encouraging them to give DNA in the hopes that improving DNA testing technologies will lead to answers.

At the event, titled “Identify the Missing,” law enforcement and forensic officials will speak with relatives who wish to file or add to missing persons reports, submit DNA cheek swabs, and provide medical and dental information, photographs and fingerprints of their loved ones. Authorities can use the records to search The National Missing and Unidentified Persons System’s federal database, which has information on 10,000 unidentified bodies.

“We’re providing a venue that’s going to encompass all of the law enforcement and community professionals that families would need in this situation,” Allison O’Neal, the Orange County supervising deputy coroner, said after a press conference announcing the program Tuesday.

Representatives from several county police agencies, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the California Department of Justice, National Missing and Unidentified Persons System and the Mexican consulate in Santa Ana are expected to participate.

Similar events have been held in Michigan, New York, Texas and Missouri.

Coroner officials said they regularly send remains to the California Department of Justice for DNA testing to close the books on the thousands missing and unidentified persons cases they see annually.

“We’re resubmitting material all the time on these older cases to try to make a match,” said Tiffany Williams, a senior deputy coroner.

However, many missing people go unreported, officials said. Sometimes family members are afraid of how DNA samples would be used, but assistant chief deputy coroner Bruce Lyle said the DNA will only be used to help identify remains.

The new outreach approach is the result of meetings with Southern California coroner offices, where some agreed to hold similar events in the coming months.

The San Bernardino County coroner’s office held theirs in June, but turnout was reportedly low, Sheriff’s officials said. They said they hope to avoid that in Orange County by spreading the word.

At San Bernardino County’s event, a Redlands mother filed a missing persons report for the daughter she had not seen in 12 years. A detective discovered that the daughter was OK and living in Los Angeles.

Sheila Tubbs, of Newport Beach, hopes to find the same resolution for her brother, Gary Patton, who went missing during a short trip to Mexico.

Patton, of Westminster, was 64 years old when he went missing in September 2013 while on a three-day trip to photograph whales and a fishing tournament in Baja California, Mexico.

They filed a missing persons report with the Westminster Police Department, passed out fliers near where he possibly went missing, hired a private investigator and placed ads in Mexican newspapers, to no avail.

Tubbs said she and several of her siblings will submit to cheek swabs on Saturday.

“The family wants to get closure if something did happen to him,” Tubbs said. “I’m trying to be the eternal optimist.”

30 September 2015

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Austria migrant truck tragedy: relatives trying to identify their familymembers

Omar Abd-Mugeeth stared at his TV in Dubai. He felt hot, then sick. Police had found an abandoned refrigerator truck on an Austrian roadside with at least 50 dead aboard.

“ Mahmoud…my little brother. I knew he was one of them,” said Mr. Abd-Mugeeth, a 44-year-old Iraqi who last week traveled nearly 3,000 miles to try to confirm the fate of his brother and his brother’s wife.

Austrian authorities eventually extracted 71 decomposing bodies from the truck last month, one in a string of recent tragedies that has put the migration crisis at the top of Europe’s political agenda. Undertaking risky travel over land and sea has drawn global attention to the desperation of families fleeing war-torn and impoverished lands in the largest mass migration since World War II.

Mr. Abd-Mugeeth and other relatives now wait as a lab in the Austrian capital processes DNA samples to find matches with the tissue of victims who would otherwise be nearly impossible to identify. He flew Thursday to Vienna and then drove to meet with police in the Burgenland region, where the truck was found. En route, he stared past cornfields and small medieval-era houses, crying silently. “My mother,” he said, “she is crushed.”

His 29-year-old brother Mahmoud Abd-Mugeeth had married Zina Kaylany, 24, shortly after they had met at a wedding five years ago, Mr. Abd-Mugeeth said. It was love at first sight. “She was a very strong and respected woman,” he said. “Mahmoud adored her.” The couple lived in Baghdad, where his brother’s wife, nicknamed “Light Eyes,” sang for her husband at home.

As Mr. Abd-Mugeeth waited to speak with authorities at the Eisenstadt police station, he asked officers, “How big was the truck? How many meters?” No one could tell him exactly. On a piece of paper, Mr. Abd-Mugeeth drew a square in red ink with small circles inside.

“Seventy one,” he said. “My brother. No space.” Rising suddenly, he stood on one leg, holding his arms up. “This is how he was standing,” he said. Then Mr. Abd-Mugeeth fell back into his chair and rested his head in his hands.

His brother Mahmoud was an Iraqi army officer, a Sunni who had grown fearful that neither he nor his country could protect his wife and family from violent extremists, according to Mr. Abd-Mugeeth and other family members.

Mahmoud Abd-Mugeeth researched flights, spoke with friends who had already left and discussed possible routes with his wife, Zina, who had two brothers already living in Germany.

In mid-August, the couple decided to leave. Mahmoud Abd-Mugeeth didn’t tell his commanding officers, family members said. They flew out of Baghdad, traveling in a group that included Zina’s sister and a brother. They arrived in Izmir, a city on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast.

Mr. Abd-Mugeeth said he asked his brother to stay in Turkey, where other family members lived. But his brother told him his wife and her two siblings wanted to join their brothers in Germany.

“Mahmoud would follow Zina anywhere,” Mr. Abd-Mugeeth said. “I tried to talk him into staying in Turkey, I warned him that the trip might be dangerous, that he didn’t know what to expect, but he wouldn’t listen.” Mahmoud Abd-Mugeeth planned to start a money transfer and exchange business in Germany, his brother said, similar to the one that Mr. Abd-Mugeeth was running in Dubai.

Before leaving Izmir, the group left their passports with relatives. A smuggler recommended by friends who had already made it to central Europe told them they would get new identities. Many Iraqi migrants are told it is easier to gain asylum in European countries by changing their identities and using, for example, Syrian passports.

Mahmoud Abd-Mugeeth also left $10,000 with his older brother, who would transfer the savings when he arrived in Germany.

The group traveled by boat to Greece, where they found another smuggler who drove them by van through Macedonia and Serbia, as far as the border with Hungary. On this leg of the trip, Mr. Abd-Mugeeth said, he and his mother were in constant contact with Mahmoud through calls and text messages.

‘“In the beginning, he was very happy,” Mr. Abd-Mugeeth said, showing a picture of his smiling brother as he posed at a town on the Greek shore.

As they progressed deeper into Europe, Mr. Abd-Mugeeth said, his brother no longer smiled in photos he sent. “I could see it in his eyes,” Mr. Abd-Mugeeth said. “He had a scared look.”

In one of the last pictures sent, he said, his brother’s face was shaded in a tree’s shadow—behind him, other migrants sat on the ground and talked while others slept amid strewed trash and discarded leftovers.

Mr. Abd-Mugeeth last spoke with his brother on Aug. 25—two days before the abandoned truck was discovered by authorities. His brother had told him he was worried about his wife sleeping on the ground in the Serbian forest, Mr. Abd-Mugeeth said. His brother also confided the couple hadn’t eaten for two days, except for some foraged fruit.

Mr. Abd-Mugeeth said he told his brother to return to their family in Turkey, that there was no point to more suffering. But his brother refused, he said, saying he had spoken to a smuggler who had promised to retrieve them that evening at the Serbia-Hungary border and take them to Germany for €1,800 (about $2,022) a person.

“I should have been harder on him,” Mr. Abd-Mugeeth said. “I should never have let him go.”

The group was expected in Germany by the Kaylany brothers—Ahmed, 28, and Sarmad, 25—who were waiting to welcome their sister Zina, her husband, Mahmoud Abd-Mugeeth, another sister and a brother, Ali Amer.

Mr. Amer had texted his brothers on Aug. 24, saying the group was waiting at the Serbia-Hungary border for a transport. Don’t worry, he said.

Sitting in their apartment in Aachen, a small town on the border with the Netherlands, the Kaylany brothers said Sunday that they heard nothing for a week after that message. They had tried calling. At first, the phone rang. But after awhile, even the ring tone went silent.

“The world fell apart,” said Ahmed Kaylany, sitting on a green velvet sofa, elbows resting on his knees. “It is as if God chose to take the best people in the world. They wouldn’t even have hurt an ant.”

The two brothers now spend their time waiting—for a decision by German authorities on their asylum applications, filed in May, and for a call from Austrian authorities about the DNA samples they sent out a week ago. For weeks, they have had trouble sleeping and eating.

“The wait is the worst part,” Sarmad Kaylany said, tears in his eyes. “I only think about my family, my parents back home who still have hope…My little sisters, my brother.”

Austrian investigators said working with frustrated and distraught relatives has heightened the emotional challenge for officers working on the case. “We see people doing all they can to provide us with DNA samples, some traveling across half of the world,” a police spokesman said.

Providing relatives with a clear answer is taking much longer than anyone wants, the spokesman said, and it could drag on for several more months because of the forensic complexity of the case, as well as the logistics of communicating with foreign authorities.

“Our priority has to be to not, not ever, make a mistake,” the spokesman said.

Authorities have arrested six people in the case, including the alleged driver.

. At the Eisenstadt police station, an officer arrived to speak with Mr. Abd-Mugeeth. A second man asked him to open his mouth so he could take a swab of saliva. He looked at Mr. Abd-Mugeeth’s passport and wrote down his name, birth date, and address on a form.

Mr. Abd-Mugeeth asked when he would get an answer about his DNA sample. “In two to three weeks,” the officer said.

The officer started looking through some papers in front of him, then pulled out a photograph of a head scarf from the stack.

“Have you seen this before?” he asked.

“I’m not sure,” Mr. Abd-Mugeeth said.

The officer showed him a picture of a small pouch. Mr. Abd-Mugeeth flicked through the photos his brother had sent on his phone. In one shot, of his brother and his wife in the forest in Serbia, Mr. Abd-Mugeeth saw that she wore the same pouch around her hips.

“And look,” Mr. Abd-Mugeeth said, pointing at his phone. “It’s the head scarf. It’s the same.”

The officer pulled out one last photo that showed a golden necklace with Kurdish letters.

“It’s Zina’s, 100%.” Mr. Abd-Mugeeth said. “The letters say ‘Mahmoud.’ ”

Mr. Abd-Mugeeth asked whether he could see the bodies of his brother and sister-in-law, or at least pictures of them. The officer said he couldn’t until the bodies were identified.

“You would not be able to recognize them,” the officer said. “The bodies are not visually recognizable.”

“But her hair color,” Mr. Abd-Mugeeth said. “You must have been able to see her hair color.”

The police officer looked down at the table.

“I’m so sorry,” he said. “But no, we couldn’t even recognize her hair color.”

Mr. Abd-Mugeeth said he had felt as though his brother’s presence lingered after the truck’s discovery. He could see on Facebook that his brother was online for several days after they last talked, a sign his phone must have been in use. But his brother didn’t reply to messages.

When Mr. Abd-Mugeeth called, no one answered.

Mr. Abd-Mugeeth said he was convinced smugglers took away the phone—which police never found—and forced his brother and the others into the truck.

“Mahmoud was very jealous,” he said. “He would not have wanted his wife to be in a place like that with so many men and so little space. He would never have entered that truck without being very scared.”

After the couple had learned early in their marriage that they couldn’t conceive children, Mr. Abd-Mugeeth said, his brother’s wife offered a divorce so her husband could remarry and have children with someone else.

“He told her he loved her, and that he would always stay with her, with or without children,” Mr. Abd-Mugeeth said. “He said…that he would live with her and die with her. And he did.”

Wednesday 30 September 2015

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North Korea: Rason flood casualties ten times official figures

Nearly 400 people have reportedly died from torrential rain that swept up residents in Rason, North Hamgyong Province. This is ten times the figure officially announced by North Korea, which is believed to have distorted numbers in fear that the international community would criticize the Kim Jong Un leadership for its lack of readiness against natural disasters, Daily NK sources reported.

“Damage from the downpours was contained to Rason in the Sonbong area and not elsewhere,” a source privy to North Korean affairs in China told Daily NK. “It was only in the Sonbong area where it rained a lot. Although the state reported 40 were killed, after looking into the matter those figures are over 400.”

An additional source in China with ties to North Korea confirmed this news.

Images featured in the Party-run Rodong Sinmun showed buildings being reconstructed, but on the larger scale, the damage was immense with entire villages being swept away, leading to a massive loss of lives, according to the source.

“The sudden rise in water levels swept up not only residents in the area but taxi drivers, traders, and even truck drivers from China. Those bodies have not even been recovered yet,” he asserted.

“Saying that 40 lives were lost is sheer nonsense.”

Soldiers mobilized from surrounding areas are currently working on rebuilding the hard hit city, which has been sealed off from the public. Roughly 45,000 soldiers are on site, reflecting the magnitude of devastation in Rason.

“The soldiers that have been mobilized are storm troops that specialize in building roads, bridges, and fixing houses,” the source said. “They have cut off the entrance to Sonbong to block cars coming from Wonjong Customs House, and people cannot enter at all. All vehicles that go through customs have to make a detour toward the Tumen River,” the source explained.

He went on to speculate that Pyongyang downplayed the numbers in an effort to deflect any criticism from the global community. While it is more common to see dozens of lives lost in a natural disaster, much higher numbers would be a sure sign of North Korea’s lack of readiness. The leadership, the source surmised, likely did not want to take any chances in acknowledging this reality.

Wednesday 30 September 2015

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Hajj stampede: Saudi officials clarify toll after questions

Saudi officials have denied reports that more than 1,000 people were killed in a stampede near Mecca last week while undertaking the Hajj pilgrimage.

A Nigerian official told the BBC the bodies of 1,075 victims had been taken to mortuaries in the city of Jeddah - higher than the official toll of 769.

Other countries also said they had been sent the photos of some 1,090 bodies.

But the Saudi officials said the photos included unidentified people who died at the Hajj - not just in the stampede.

Spokesman Maj Gen Mansour al-Turki told the Associated Press that some were foreign nationals who lived in Saudi Arabia and carried out the Hajj without the required permits

Others were among the 109 people who were killed when a crane collapsed at the Grand Mosque in Mecca on 11 September, he said.

Confusion about how many people died in last week's stampede mounted after Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj tweeted on Sunday that the Saudi authorities had released photos of 1,090 pilgrims who died.

Pakistani and Indonesian officials also indicated that they have been sent more than 1,000 such images.

On Tuesday, a Nigerian Hajj official from Kano, Abba Yakubu, told the BBC's Yusuf Ibrahim Yakasai that he had been to Jeddah, where the dead from the stampede were being processed.

Mr Yakubu said that in total, 14 lorries loaded with bodies were brought to the city.

He added that so far 1,075 bodies had been offloaded from 10 lorries and taken into the morgues. Four lorries had yet to be dealt with, Mr Yakubu said.

Several countries have been severely critical of the way the Saudi authorities have handled the accident's aftermath, notably Saudi Arabia's regional rival Iran, which lost at least 228 people in the disaster.

The stampede was the deadliest incident to hit the Hajj in 25 years.

The crush occurred as two large groups of pilgrims converged at right angles as they took part in the Hajj's last major rite - stone-throwing at pillars called Jamarat, where Satan is believed to have tempted the Prophet Abraham.

As well as the fatalities, 934 people were injured.

Saudi Arabia's most senior cleric, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin-Abdullah al-Sheikh, has defended the authorities, saying the stampede was "beyond human control".

King Salman has ordered a safety review into the disaster.

Deaths reported so far by nationality

◾Iran: at least 228
◾Morocco: 87 (media reports)
◾Egypt: 74
◾India: 45
◾Pakistan: 44
◾Cameroon: at least 20
◾Niger: at least 19
◾Chad: 11
◾Somalia: 8 (media reports)
◾Senegal: 5
◾Algeria: 4
◾Tanzania: 4
◾Turkey: 4
◾Indonesia: 3
◾Kenya: 3
◾Nigeria: 3
◾Netherlands: 1
◾Burundi: 1
◾Burkina Faso: 1
◾Other nationalities (numbers not yet known): Benin

Wednesday 30 September 2015

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