Body exhumed for DNA of mystery man murdered in Idaho 29 years ago

Jan 12 2012 - 10:04am

LEWISTON, Idaho -- Four small yellow flags were the only indication of what lay below the frozen grass at Normal Hill Cemetery.

Using a square-bladed shovel, Greg Morton of Wilbert Precast quickly cut the sod into strips, setting it neatly to one side. With plywood protecting the grass, the bucket on a front-end loader, exactly the width of a grave, carved a hole the length and width of the concrete vault buried several feet down.

It was a sizable crowd that gathered to watch the grave of an unknown young man being reopened Wednesday morning: Nez Perce County deputies who obtained the $2,000 grant that will pay for the costs associated with exhumation, city police officers, the county coroner and his deputy, the grave diggers, a mortician and the news media.

Exhumation only occurs around here once every 10 or 15 years, and then most often because a family wants a grave relocated, said Jason Harwick of Vassar-Rawls Funeral Home.

The action requires a permit from the Idaho Bureau of Vital Statistics, and that a licensed mortician be at the scene, said Coronor Gary Gilliam. In this case, it also necessitated the presence of sheriff's evidence and investigating deputies who will establish a chain of evidence in the event a homicide case can be pursued in the future.

Shovels completed the job of removing the last of the brown earth that had been undisturbed for more than 29 years. Four 2-inch-thick concrete slabs -- the top of the vault -- were removed, exposing a rusty metal container inside.

That container was lifted out by four men and placed in the back of the coroner's pickup truck for a short journey to Vassar-Rawls Funeral Home.

That's when events started resembling an old comedy routine.

A plastic tarp had been placed beneath the box because it didn't look very sound, Gilliam said. When they picked it up, the bottom of the metal box gave way and the contents -- bones -- fell into the plastic tarp.

The femur, the largest of the leg bones, was taken for testing, and the rest of the skeleton was bundled up, put back in what remained of the box and within an hour everything was reinterred at the cemetery, Gilliam said.

When the body of a young man was found 291/2 years ago on the Idaho side of the Snake River just upstream from Heller Bar, DNA testing wasn't a tool available to law enforcement. Now, samples of DNA can be readily recovered from bones.

The femur was taken to the Lewiston FBI office, which has a sterile dryer for evidence. It will be dried, packaged and sent, probably via United Parcel Service, to the University of North Texas at Denton, which will do the analysis at little or no cost.

The results will be run through all the DNA databases available, said Nez Perce County Sheriff's Sgt. John Hilderbrand, the chief investigator in the case that started a year before he entered law enforcement. That could take a couple months.

For a match to be made, a near relative will have to be somewhere in a database -- probably a parent or grandparent or sibling, Hilderbrand said.

Investigators in 1982 were able to determine the make and model of the gun that created the wounds in the man's neck and left shoulder. But they were never able to determine where he went into the water, probably two to three weeks before a fisherman found him on June 26, 1982.

No one ever claimed him, or came forward with a name. His description was placed on national missing persons websites. Eventually, he was buried in an unmarked grave in the city-owned Normal Hill Cemetery.

He was estimated to be 18 to 22 years old, 5 feet, 11 inches tall, about 150 pounds, with straight brown or black hair. He had a 2-inch scar on his right ankle. He was wearing blue swimming trunks with red and white stripes underneath designer jeans.

He had been shot with a Smith & Wesson .38 caliber 36 Centennial Model revolver manufactured no later than 1967.

When testing is completed, the bone will be cremated and returned to the young man's grave. That's the law, Gilliam said.

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