Detectives exhume 1989 homicide victim from Sumner Cemetery

Staff writerMarch 11, 2014 

After more than three hours of digging Tuesday at Sumner Cemetery, a concrete liner was lifted from the wet earth and Pierce County sheriff’s detectives peered inside.

The liner was meant to protect the wooden casket that was buried a quarter of a century ago, when gravediggers laid to rest a young man with no known name.

All detectives knew about him were his clothing sizes and that his body laid on a steep hillside above the Carbon River for three to six months before a hiker discovered it March 18, 1989. The young man had been stabbed to death.

Detectives exhumed the body in hopes of using DNA and possibly facial reconstruction to identify the man and generate new leads in the cold case. “We’ve learned a lot of things since 1989,” said Kathy Taylor, the state forensic anthropologist who will examine the body.

Medical examiners will re-examine the man, who is listed as a John Doe, to see whether they can determine his age, race and height. His skull will be checked for evidence of prior diseases, fractures and anything else that could help family members recognize him.

His dental records might be on file, but not much else was kept on record.

An artist will work with the Medical Examiner’s Office to create a facial reconstruction if the skull is in good enough condition.

“Not only could that spark recognition, but people can read a story and not connect with it but once they see a picture…” Taylor said. A bone sample will be taken for DNA, which will be entered into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System.

The database includes 10,777 unidentified people from across the country. The public can access the system so those who have lost loved ones can search themselves instead of relying on law enforcement officials.

“We have a lot of cold cases” – 95 since 1976 – “and this has been on the radar for some time,” sheriff’s spokesman Ed Troyer said. “It’s where the investigation has taken us.”

A search and rescue team recovered John Doe’s body the day after it was found in 1989. It was too badly decomposed to determine much about the victim but he likely was in his late teens or early 20s.

He was wearing a T-shirt with Singha Beer written on it and an emblem of a lion and the word Bangkok. On top of that was a long-sleeved cotton shirt (size 15 small) with purple buttons and blue diagonal stripes.

The victim also had on Levi 501 jeans (29-inch waist and 34-inch inseam) and blue Pro-Keds with white stripes (size 9½).

On Tuesday, a group of 20 or so law enforcement officers gathered just before 8 a.m. to begin unearthing the body. The exhumation was slightly complicated because the casket was buried beneath another unclaimed homicide victim.

Just after 10 a.m., cemetery workers lifted the dirt-caked casket out of the ground. Medical examiners carefully lifted the body out and wrapped it in a new white tarp before driving it to their office.

Left behind were the splintered casket, a deep hole in the ground and myriad questions.

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