On Wednesday morning, an excavator sliced through grass and mud at the Longview Memorial Park cemetery until it exposed a soggy, unmarked grave. Officials from the Cowlitz County Coroner’s office donned protective suits and pulled from the water-filled hole a large black bag containing the bones of an unidentified man.
They were hoping to solve a mystery a quarter-century old.
The man’s body was found floating in the Cowlitz River on May 27, 1988. Authorities never could identify him, and in keeping with the usual procedure in these cases he was buried at a local cemetery. What little was known about him was recorded in a file, tucked away and pretty much forgotten by local officials.
But last month, Coroner Tim Davidson and Kelso police learned from a national missing persons database that dental records from the unidentified remains match those of a missing man with Cowlitz County ties. It’s the first break in the 25-year-old case.
On Wednesday, Davidson and four members of his staff used cemetery records to find the grave and dig it up to collect tissue samples for DNA analysis. Coroners didn’t collect tissue samples from unidentified remains decades ago, so Davidson and his team needed to exhume the body.
Identifying mystery bodies can be slow work, with small clues unfolding over decades. Older cases are especially difficult, Davidson said, because DNA, dental X-ray and other technologies weren’t commonly used decades ago.
In 1991, the Washington State Patrol dug up the man’s body and collected its jawbone in an effort to match dental records. That effort paid off only this year, when a sophisticated database in Texas known as the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System registered a match with the dental information collected by the state patrol.
Davidson declined Wednesday to provide what may be the missing man’s name. He said he has not yet contacted possible family members because he does not want to raise their hopes in vain.
The man’s resting place in the Longview cemetery amounts to a modern-day pauper’s grave. He was buried in a body bag and placed in a concrete vault. Tucked into a small bag were the possessions the man had when his body was found — chewing tobacco, a bottle of medication and lip balm.
On Wednesday, Coroner’s employees carefully opened the body bag and removed the body’s two femurs — the upper leg bones. Davidson tucked the bones into a red plastic bag.
The bones will be sent to the Department of Forensic and Investigative Genetics at the University of North Texas in Fort Worth where, Davidson hopes, a lab will extract DNA that can be matched to that of the man’s surviving family members.
Dental evidence offers a good clue, but in older cases like this it isn’t fool-proof, he said. If a viable DNA sample can be removed from the bones, Davidson will contact what is believed to be the man’s family members and ask them for a DNA sample to see if there’s a match. Davidson expects a determination in about two months.
It’s the second unidentified body case the coroner’s office has worked to solve in the last year. In December, Davidson used the Texas lab and computer database to identify a man who washed up along the Columbia River shore in Longview as Charles A. Farley of Hiawatha, Kan.
On Wednesday, the coroner’s crew placed the remains in a fresh, white body bag and slipped them back into the grave. Davidson turned and walked away as a cemetery crew prepared to rebury the body.
“Hope this pays off,” he said.