SHERMAN CO., OR -- Nearly 60 years after an eastern Oregon man disappeared, his remains have finally been positively identified, thanks to new DNA technology.
"His whereabouts are now known," says Dr. Nici Vance. As the State Forensic Anthropologist, she's worked for nearly three decades to give names to unidentified remains stored at the Oregon State Medical Examiner's Office, including a set recovered in 1989. The bones were discovered by a rafting group on the Sherman County side of the John Day River.
"It was well known that David West disappeared during the John Day flood in 1964. And it was well known that he’d never been seen or heard from again." Despite an investigation at the time and numerous tests, there was no positive identification. Vance says she never gave up trying to give a name to the remains, "Way back in 2010, we took a sample and sent it to our DNA lab and they uploaded it into the national DNA system. And it was cycling in that national system for years and it just never associated genetically with anyone."
Last year, she decided to try a new technique called Investigative Genetic Genealogy, and a sample was sent to a special lab. Despite decades of degradation, analysis revealed the name of two biological relatives of David West. Sheriffs in Gilliam and Sherman counties contacted family members and collected an oral swab from one relative. It confirmed a genetic association, allowing for a positive ID. Sherman County Sheriff Brad Lohrey is the son of Sheriff Gerald Lohrey (pictured), who led the initial 1989 recovery effort of West's remains.
Dr. Vance says the resolution was a long time coming, "Dave West went missing in 1964; the body was found in 1989, so that was 25 years since his disappearance - didn’t know who he was, though, at that point. So, from 1989 all the way up to 2022, that’s an extra 33 years. So, all in total, this case encapsulates 58 years of law enforcement and mystery." She tells KBND News, "These cases are actually more common now than you would suspect, because that investigative genetic genealogy is being used more often. The State Medical Examiner’s Office, in the last three years, has used it through a federal grant, where we identified 30 people - some from the 1960s."
Around 100 sets of unidentified remains in State Police custody. For Dr. Vance, overseeing their identification is a responsibility she doesn't take lightly, "I’ve been their steward for so long. It really is - if not sad - a very rewarding process to be able to go back to a family and say ‘hey, we can finally answer this one question for you.’ It’s incredibly rewarding."
Photo courtesy OR State Police: Sherman Co. Sheriff Gerald Lohrey at the recovery site in 1989.