Digging up a grave, specifically Plot #142-C-90, Detective Bill Francis feels hopeful. The sun cuts through the chilly October morning as the veteran investigator tosses out shovelfuls of dirt. He reaches the coffin. It's made of cheap wood and, after more than 50 years in ground, it's crumbling. The paupers' graves are crammed together in this remote part of Spokane's Fairmount Cemetery, and Francis tries not to disturb the person in the next plot. "They didn't waste much space between the bodies," he recalls thinking at the time.
Francis doesn't know for sure who's inside the coffin he's exhuming, but he's so optimistic that he's already calling her Mildred: Mildred Johnson, a young mother from Coeur d'Alene who disappeared in 1954. Mildred Johnson, wife of Harry Johnson, who was known to assault her. Mildred Johnson, whose children, now in their 60s, want to bring her home.
"I hope we have the right person — for them," Francis thinks as he and the other investigators lift the coffin out of Plot #142-C-90. "I hope the DNA is still there. I hope we can do this."
“It's a shot in the dark. The odds of it matching are very low ... Lots of people went missing in 1954," admits Dr. John Howard, the Spokane County medical examiner, who analyzed the exhumed remains before sending samples to the DNA Identity Lab in Texas. But long shot or not, a medical examiner's primary mission is to identify the dead, says Howard.
"That's the key feature: Who was this individual? Of all the critical questions in death, that's always No. 1," he says.
Usually, identifying someone is straightforward. A family member finds a dead body in Person A's house, wearing Person A's clothes and looking exactly like Person A. Done: identification by next of kin, even before a medical examiner gets involved.
Sometimes, however, it's not so easy. A body may be dumped in the woods, left to decompose for weeks or months. Or in a river, where trace evidence can be washed away. Or dismembered, with body parts scattered in different places.
The hardest people to identify are often transients or those living on society's fringes -- people with loose family connections or none at all, Howard says. "It comes up to the concept: Does someone miss the person? ... Missing is not the same as being missed. Most people who go missing are missed within a very short period of time."
In lieu of family or friends, investigators use fingerprints, dental records and DNA to figure out who a person was. And in those rare cases when a body can't be identified, a medical examiner or coroner assigns it a number and contacts a rotating group of funeral homes to handle the burial. If murder is suspected, the body is typically embalmed for evidentiary purposes; if it's not, the body's cremated. (The state used to pick up the tab, but in the early 1990s, the burden was shifted to county authorities.)
Laws differ from state to state, but Washington allows medical examiners and coroners to release few details about a person's death or autopsy besides the cause and manner of death. However, the state allows one exception: when efforts to identify a person have failed. In those instances, all sorts of information can be released to the public in hopes that someone might recognize the deceased. It is with that thought that the Spokane County Medical Examiner's Office has published on the Internet details of 23 unidentified bodies dating back to 1961.
But ultimately is all this effort really worth the trouble — and expense — for people who may not even be missed? Should we be exhuming 50-year-old gravesites when the likelihood of identifying the person is slim?
Howard takes the questions seriously. And his answers aren't entirely warm and fuzzy. "Why are we spending money on dead guys? Well, we're not spending money on dead guys. These are people who were alive, and if we stop caring as a society about why people die, guess what -- total anarchy. We'll go back to the Dark Ages where there will be feudal kings," Howard says. "We need to know because we don't want these death squads of South America where people just disappeared — poof, gone ... We don't want those things, so death investigation very much is part of the foundation of a free society."
Howard adds, "If we stop caring about individuals — well, OK, we can do that as a nation, but all bets are off. No one is safe."
That, in other words, is why authorities dug up Plot #142-C-90, looking for Mildred Johnson.
In 1954, Mildred Johnson was 31, a mother of four living in Coeur d'Alene with her husband, Harry. She stayed at home while he worked as a pipe worker, regularly uprooting the family as he chased jobs from state to state. She was the type of mom who always reminded her kids to have clean underwear, just in case, says daughter Charlotte Kelley, who was 13 at the time.
Harry, however, drank heavily and often assaulted Mildred. In April of that year, after another beating, Mildred left for Spokane. She returned home briefly around May 11, her son's birthday, and then vanished for good. A few months later, it is believed, Harry was called to Spokane to identify a body found in the river. He said it wasn't Mildred, and her children never heard from her again. In 1987, after a life of chasing work, Harry Johnson died.
Then, in June 2007, a neighbor who had lived next to the Johnson family came forward with a 53-year-old secret. The neighbor told Coeur d'Alene police that one night in 1954 she and her mother heard the Johnson couple fighting. Then silence. Then they saw Harry Johnson carry a rolled rug or blanket from the house to a car. Then, as he placed the roll in the car, what appeared to be a human arm fell into view. The neighbor had kept the secret, she said, because Harry Johnson had threatened her mother not to talk.
With the new lead, authorities checked for unidentified bodies from that era. They discovered records of only one: a woman found in the Spokane River on Sept. 6, 1954. The coroner at the time thought the woman might have been in the river for about 10 weeks — right around the time Mildred went missing. When no one claimed the body, the remains were interred at Plot #142-C-90.
Detective Bill Francis, a 29-year veteran of the Spokane County Sheriff's Office, applied for a search warrant to exhume the grave. In the warrant, he lays out the case: the drinking and abuse by Harry Johnson; the timeline of Mildred's disappearance; and the neighbor's long-held secret. Francis was investigating a murder, but the suspected killer was already dead. This was about something else; talking with Mildred's daughter, Charlotte, he knew how important this search was.
"You can see in this family that they have so much hope," he says. "As a community, we still have a need to solve these mysteries for people."
The exhumation began early on the morning of Oct. 25, 2007. A backhoe started the hole, then people grabbed shovels. When they reached the crumbling, wood coffin, they decided to slide a sheet of metal beneath it and gingerly lift it out in one piece.
Francis and others collected the bones in a body bag and brought them to the morgue, where Howard examined them. The doctor took bone samples and sent them to the DNA lab in Texas, where they were to be compared with swabs taken from Charlotte Kelley and her sister, Linda.
Everyone was hopeful. Howard, Francis, but most of all Kelley, who now lives in Texas. She picked out a plot for her mother and found a minister to lead the funeral service. She tried to be patient, but weeks and months passed as she waited for the DNA test results. She wrote a note to the lab telling the scientists about her mother, just to remind them how important their work was. Still no answer came.
Then last week, Francis called Kelley. He had finally received a letter from the lab and it wasn't the answer he was expecting: Kelley's DNA didn't pair up with the exhumed remains; the body is not her mother's. Francis was crushed to deliver the message and practiced his words before making the call. He worked out what he planned to say first: "Charlotte, I don't have good news for you ... "
Kelley broke down. She had had so much hope. Days later, she still couldn't talk about it without bursting into tears. "This has been a real blow," says Kelley, now 68. "I don't care how long it takes or how old you get, you still want to know where your mother is."
But besides feeling like she's lost her mother again, Kelley is stung by something else: The unidentified woman from Plot #142-C-90 is headed back to the ground, nameless. "I hinted to Bill [Francis] that they should let us bury her, but I know you can't do that," Kelley says. "Now I'm hoping that somebody will claim that woman. She got into the river somehow. She had to have been local. Somebody knows her and someday, I hope and pray, somebody will come forward."
For his part, Francis now has two mysteries to solve: the case of Mildred Johnson and the one of the unnamed woman returning to Fairmount Cemetery. At least, he has DNA on file should anyone come looking for a loved one.
"We could get a hit from someone else, somewhere along the line some DNA may pop up and we'll figure out who this person was," Francis says. "We just have to keep working at it."
The Spokane County Medical Examiner's Office maintains a list of unidentified bodies, hoping that someone will step forward with information. Among the dead: An infant discarded in a bathroom toilet and a woman dismembered in the mid-1980s.
When a body's identity can't be determined, the medical examiner assigns it a number and contacts a funeral home to arrange burial. When homicide is suspected, the body is embalmed; when it's not, it's cremated. The Spokane County Medical Examiner's Office has put details of these cases on the Internet in hopes that someone might step forward with information. The Web page lists 23 unidentified bodies, including an infant found at the city's sewer treatment plant and another baby left in a dumpster outside of a convenience store.
The following text is from the medical examiner's Website. Anyone with information about these cases is asked to call (509) 477-2296.
Date Found 6/27/07
Estimated Age 33-55 years
Found in the Spokane River just east of the Washington Street Bridge in the City of Spokane.
Adult male. Possibly of mixed race. This male was approximately 5' 3" - 5' 6" in height. The body was in an advanced stage of decomposition. The body weight is estimated to have been 130-180 pounds. There were no visible tattoos noted on the skin but some skin surfaces were missing due to advanced decomposition. Fingerprints were unobtainable. At the time that the body was recovered, this man had only one remaining tooth. He may have had teeth lost after death. This man had sustained a traumatic jaw fracture that had been surgically repaired. There were two metal plates over the healing jaw fracture which was in the lower right jaw (his own right side). These plates have been determined to be "Walter Lorenz" titanium plates. The jaw fracture could have occurred several years prior to the death. There was a previous nose fracture as well as a fracture to the left eyebrow ridge. This man would have had a scar in his left eyebrow area after the injury. It is possible that the jaw, nose and eyebrow ridge fracture occurred in a single traumatic incident.
Date Found 6/18/06
Estimated Age 18-40 years
Found in the Spokane River behind the back yard of 1201 Evergreen, Sans Souci Trailer Park, Spokane.
Caucasian male 5' 10" to 6'3 " in height. 200-230 pounds estimated weight. No tattoos noted on the skin present but some skin surfaces were missing due to decomposition. Fingerprints were unobtainable. Dental information was recorded and entered, but no match was found in the Washington State Patrol database. This male has missing teeth and may have 4 more recent dental extractions (in the weeks and months prior to death). This man was wearing a single sock, Hanes brand and a pair of brief-style undershorts with three "X X X" written in permanent marker on the waistband. The body could have been in the water since some time in 2005 or early 2006. The age is estimated to be between 18-40 years of age.
Date Found 4/25/01
Estimated Age full-term
Found in a garbage dumpster at the HiCo Mart located at 6021 E. Trent.
This infant was estimated to be a full-term infant. The infant was found inside of an athletic bag. Also with the infant were two dark blue towels. One of the towels had a label marked "SAHARA BY CANNON". DNA profile available for identification purposes.
Date Found 9/21/99
Estimated Age unknown
Found 1/4 mile north of the Nine Mile Dam on the Spokane River.
A single left foot that was inside of a sock. A DNA profile was done, no known match.
Date Found 6/15/98
Estimated Age no estimate
Found at the Upper Falls intake at the Howard Street Bridge on the Spokane River at Riverfront Park.
Adult Caucasian male. This male was 5 feet 7 1/2 inches in height. Clothing worn: a pair of twill-style long-legged trousers that were dark blue in color, a black leather belt with a white metal buckle, a long-sleeved shirt decorated with checks that were light blue and white in color, the front of the shirt had 2 snap pockets, a pair of athletic-style rubber-soled shoes that were dark blue in color and had 2 Velcro closures. The brand name of the shoes had been "PACIFIC WALKER'S". There were a pair of sunglasses with plastic frames that were dark blue in color. A medication recovered from the clothing might indicate a medical history of schizophrenia. This man may also have had a medical history of significant heart disease.
Dental identification information obtained, no match found. Fingerprints unobtainable. DNA profile available for identification purposes.
Date Found 6/11/95
Estimated Age 18-35 years
Found on the bank of the Spokane River at approximately 2200 W. Falls Street.
Adult Caucasian male. This male was 5 feet 11 inches in height and weighed approximately 161 pounds. His hair was dark brown or possibly black in color. Clothing worn: a pair of black lace-up boots with a brand name listed as "CORCORAN," a pair of black-colored socks, a pair of light blue denim pants with a brand name listed as "RUSTLER," a pair of red slightly meshed undershorts, a dark-colored T-shirt with the size listed as medium and a name brand of "EDDIE BAUER." Dental identification information obtained, no match found. Fingerprints unobtainable. DNA profile available for identification purposes.
Date Found 10/25/92
Estimated Age 40-60 years
Found at 500 E. Trent in an area that was known as a transient camp.
Adult Caucasian male. This male was 5 feet 7 1/4 inches in height and weighed approximately 140 pounds. The hair color was black and gray. The eye color was brown. Clothing worn: a dark green pair of sweat pants, gray corduroy pants, a belt, a blue long-sleeved zip-up jacket, a maroon pullover sleeveless sweater, a T-shirt with an inscription on the front that read "MIKE'S BURGER ROYAL." This shirt also had a yellow crown with a red design. Also worn were a pair of gray socks with orange trim, a pair of dark green socks, and a knit cap with the insignia "DAILY RECORD" on the back of the cap. There was a blue cloth billfold and a pair of black framed bifocal glasses present. This man had a full beard and mustache. A small mole was noted on the left side of his nose. There was a scar located on the lower right area of the abdomen. The left-hand second finger had an old amputation at the joint. There was a 2-inch scar noted on the top of the left forearm. This man may have had a medical history of lung cancer. Fingerprints and dental identification obtained, no matches found.
Date Found 7/11/89
Estimated Age 40-50 years
Found at the Nine Mile region of the Spokane River.
Adult Caucasian male. This male was 5 feet 5 1/2 inches in height and weighed approximately 150 pounds. There was a tattoo located at the left biceps that appeared to read "RICH." Clothing worn: a dark colored pair of "HI-TEC" brand boots that were a size 7, a pair of bluish-colored socks with white trim, a light pair of denim jeans, a long sleeve button down shirt that was frayed along the lower waist area, and a T-shirt that had gray and maroon horizontal stripes. There was also a white metal necklace that had a yellow metal cross pendant. The clasp of the necklace was defective and was held together by a paper clip. Dental information obtained, no match found. Fingerprints unobtainable.
Date Found 7/3/89
Estimated Age 40-60 years
Found in the North Side landfill.
Adult Caucasian male. Height estimated to be 5 feet 6 inches to 5 feet 7 inches. There were 3 tattoos noted. Tattoo #1 was located on the right biceps region and was of a green, black and white appearing snake design. Tattoo #2 was located on the right forearm and was of a snake, a tree branch with green leaves, and an animal head that is possibly a panther. Tattoo #3 was located on the left forearm and has an eagle, a portion of a treetop, and a mountain in the background.
Date Found 6/20/84
Estimated Age 20-35 years
Found on the south bank of the Spokane River, .08 mile west of the T.J. Meenach Bridge.
Adult Caucasian female. The estimated height for this female had been 5 feet 3 inches to 5 feet 7 inches. The hair color was possibly blonde. This woman had been dismembered. The woman's skull was later found on 4-19-1998 at a vacant lot located at 7th Avenue and Sherman Street in Spokane. Dental identification information was obtained at that time, no match found. A DNA profile was done, no known match. There is a possibility that this woman may have given birth to children. This woman had a 1 1/2 inch oval horizontal scar on her left kneecap, a faint 1/4-inch scar on her right knee cap, a scar of her left arm that measured 3 1/2 inches in length. There were 2 prominent moles noted on the front of her neck.
Date Found 3/28/84
Estimated Age 1-2 months
Found in a toilet in the bathroom at the downtown YWCA Building located at W. 829 Broadway.
Approximately 1-2 months premature Caucasian infant.
Date Found 7/14/81
Estimated Age 40-60 years
Found in the weeds along a railroad embankment located at Trent and Erie Street.
Adult Caucasian male. This male was 5 feet 8 inches in height and weighed approximately 150 pounds. He had short light brown graying hair. This person was thought to be a transient who may have used the nickname "Slow Harold." Clothing worn: a long wool-type overcoat with large front pockets, a black leather coat with the letters "KLENE" handwritten in ink on the interior label, a J.C. Penney shirt size listed as "Tall XL," a pair of lace-up boots that were mid-calf high. This man carried a small coin bag that closed with a metal clasp at the top. This man had no teeth. Fingerprints were unobtainable.
Date Found 1/21/80
Estimated Age 35-45 years
Found at E. 700 Trent in a railroad tunnel.
Adult Caucasian male. This male was 5 feet 6 inches in height and weighed 125 pounds. He had brown-colored hair and light-brown-colored eyes. Clothing worn: a blue jean jacket, a blue jean shirt, a blue and brown thin cotton plaid shirt, another jacket with a nylon lining and foam insulation with an outer cotton fabric that had a fine blue-colored weave. There was also a heavy denim garment with an inner lining of nylon which showed some quilted pattern. A pair of cowboy-style boots that were mid-calf in height with one bearing a label that said "HYER Quality boots, made in U.S.A." There was a single pair of white wool socks. Dental identification information obtained, no match found. Fingerprints obtained, no match found.
Date Found 6/27/78
Estimated Age no estimate
Found in the Cadillac Apartments located at 228 1/2 W. Sprague.
This apartment building was said to have been abandoned when a fire broke out. This adult male was found inside the burned building. This male was 5 feet 6 inches in height and weighed approximately 130 pounds. He had brown-colored hair. The left index finger was remotely amputated. The past medical history for this man had been an appendectomy, liver disease possibly secondary to alcoholism, and degenerative joint disease of his lumbar spine. This male had no teeth. Fingerprints were unobtainable.
Date Found 5/30/77
Estimated Age 1-2 months
Found at the Little Spokane River near Dartford and Minihdoka Drive.
Approximately 1-2 months premature infant male. Dark hair color.
Date Found 3/11/77
Estimated Age 3-4 months
Found at the City Sewer Treatment Plant.
Approximately 3-4 months premature infant female.
Date Found 7/1/74
Estimated Age 6 months
Found at the Holiday Hills Campground in Liberty Lake.
Approximately 6 months premature infant, gender could not be determined.
Date Found 9/2/71
Estimated Age 50 years
Found in the Spokane River just west of the Division Street Bridge.
Adult Caucasian male. There was a tattoo on the left forearm of the letters "B.S." Fingerprints were obtained, no match found.
Date Found 5/15/71
Estimated Age 60 years
Found along the railroad tracks behind 104 S. Division Street.
Adult Caucasian male. Estimated height of 5 feet 8 inches. Approximate weight 145 pounds. Clothing worn: a long brown coat, a rust-colored shirt, green trousers, black shoes and a gray hat. There was a tattoo on the right forearm that is possibly a name, but the name was unreadable. Fingerprints obtained, no match found.
Date Found 7/1/64
Estimated Age 50-60 years
Found near Hangman Creek in the area of 18th Avenue and Ash Street.
Adult Caucasian male. It was theorized that this man may have fallen or jumped from a train. He had gray hair color. Clothing worn: a herringbone twill suit, tan shoes, tan shirt, and two-piece set of long underwear.
Date Found 6/10/63
Estimated Age 30 years
Found in the Spokane River just east of the Nine Mile Falls Dam.
Adult Male. Dental identification information obtained, no match found. Fingerprints unobtainable.
Date Found 7/3/61
Estimated Age 60-70 years
Found along the Spokane River at the foot of Clark Avenue.
Adult male. The decedent had been wearing a belt with the initial "G" on it. This man had no real teeth. Fingerprints unobtainable.
Date Found 1/21/61
Estimated Age 60 years
Found on the north bank of the Spokane River at Howard Street
Adult Caucasian male. Fingerprints taken, no match found.