Tuesday, November 28, 2023

54 Years Ago, the Skeleton of an Unidentified Man Was Found in a Shallow Grave West of Willow Creek

Sketches of the human skeleton drawn by Leonardo Davinci [From Wikicommons]

Cold cases grow cold because their stories stop being told. In August of 2021, the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office published an interactive map and timeline of over sixty missing and murdered people whose cases remain unsolved. We have taken on the task of writing about each and every one of those cases starting with the oldest one, to keep their stories alive and hopefully find justice for the victims and families. Remember, as Jean Racine, the French playwright once said, “there are no secrets that time does not reveal.”

“Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires,
Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth
Which is already flesh, fur and faeces,
Bone of man and beast, cornstalk and leaf.”

-T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, “East Coker”, Section I

The skeleton of a man is the skeleton of every man. We have all seen one, most in textbooks, and some in real-life, but paradoxically never our own. Devoid of skin and sinew and synapses, the moments and love and ache that define us fade to our basic framework.

When we explore the unsolved cold cases of Humboldt County, our goal is to memorialize the individuals lost in the gray-world of newsprint. Unfortunately, we cannot do that for all. 

On April 28, 1968, two children were playing on the shoulder of Highway 299 approximately six miles west of Willow Creek and four miles east of Berry Summit. In an instant, their childhood innocence gave way to a stark lesson in mortality when they found a human skeleton partially buried in a shallow grave.

According to a May 7 article in the Times Standard, “Two Arcata children visiting their grandparents…found the skeletonized remains in a shallow grave partially covered with large rocks and earth.” The article reported that officers said “the skull had rolled partway down the hill leading to the discovery of the grave, and indicat[ing] the remains are “probably” those of a murder victim.”

The Humboldt County Sheriff at the time, Gene Cox, explained why law enforcement thought the man’s death had likely been homicide. He reported, “one of the rocks found in the middle of the torso was of boulder size and would require at least one adult to put it there.

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County Coroner Edward Nielson pointed out towards the end of the article, “A man doesn’t commit suicide and then bury himself.”

On June 13th, 1968, the Time Standard published a story entitled “Pathologists Report on Skeleton Studies” that described the discovery of the bones and the information gleaned by forensic pathologists from the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

After cross-referencing databases of missing persons and finding no potential matches, the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office shipped the bones and fragments of clothing to the Smithsonian where pathologists began to provide a vague sense of who the remains once were. 

The remains belonged to a white male, possibly European, between the ages of 40-55 years old and stood between 5′ 4 ¼ “ to 5’ 8 ½ “. This man was determined to have a “heavy build”, brown hair, and what was described as a “deep chest and stocky trunk”. Based on the condition of the remains, pathologists determined this man had been dead more than six months, and possibly more than a year.

The man was determined to have had a “medium-sized face”, “a high, beaky nose”, brown hair, and researchers found that all of his teeth had “been extracted during life”

The dead man’s bones showed signs of multiple injuries including one to the left leg “slightly above the knee” that researchers suggested occurred during “early life.” This injury caused the left leg to be “one-half shorter” than the right. Also, the man’s left cheekbone indicated an “old injury” and his vertebrae suggested a “deformed or injured back.” 

The condition of the dead man’s bones suggested a “hard occupational use of the back, pelvis, shoulders, and wrists, and one wrist also show[ed] the existence of arthritis.”

Clothing found amongst the bones included a “knitted nylon green slipover shirt” and “gray cotton twill trousers with an elastic belt with the buckle having a lion emblem on the front.” For footwear, the man was buried in “brown three-quarter length lace top boots.”

One other source of information on the unidentified man is an entry in the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System. Much of information offered within NamUs matches the original information published in the Times Standard, but there are some inconsistencies. 

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NamUs estimates the man to have been 45-60 years of age when he died. The estimated year of death also became broader within NamUs–He was now identified as having died between 1964-1967.

NamUs actually has the man’s body being located three days before the date the Times Standard described–April 28, 1968. 

Another novel piece of information NamUs offers that the Times Standard piece did not was the determination that the man “was found among large rocks cleared from the road after the 1964 flood.” 

Also, NamUs provided further information regarding the dead man’s distinctive physical characteristics suggesting he “walked with a limp from shortened left lower limb due to early surgery.” This could have been caused by a “possible old fracture which has now completely healed which delayed growth on the left side.” 

The information offered in NamUs that contradicted information offered in the Times Standard focused on the teeth. Whereas the Times Standard suggested the man was found with no teeth, NamUs said “nicotine stains were found on [the] 1st molar and 1st premolar were incidental to pipe smoking also suggesting the victim was right-handed.” One final physical description from NamUs not reflected in the Times Standard reporting was the victim being “muscular and well developed.” 

In regards to the NamUs’s information on the dead man’s clothing, nothing contradicts the Times Standard information but provides further detail.  The man was reportedly wearing a “Jersey knit Shirt [that] was green, short-sleeved with open collar possibly with suspenders.” For pants, fragments from a pair of cotton twill trousers were found “grey in color along with a fragment of an elastic belt with Rusted belt buckle [that] has [a] lion emblem on the front.” The footwear was reportedly “heavy leather boots with thick rubber soles.” The rubber sole reportedly measured 11 1/4″ and 4 1/8″ of maximum sole width.

That is all we know. This brown-haired white man, possibly past middle age, banged up from past injuries and a body made calloused with work, found himself dead, possibly killed, and buried in a shallow grave on a rural roadway in eastern Humboldt County.

There is no name, no birthday, no backstory. 

HCSO asks that if anyone has information to share about unsolved crimes to contact the “Crime Tip Line at 707-268-2539, submit information using our Online Crime Tip Form, or email hsotipline@co.humboldt.ca.us.

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Matt LaFever
Matt LaFeverhttps://mendofever.com/
I like to think of myself as a reporter for the Average Joe. Journalism has become a craft defined largely by city dwellers on America's coasts. It’s time to take it back. I have been an Emerald Triangle resident since 2006 and this is year ten in Mendocino County. Please, email me at matthewplafever@gmail.com if you know a story that needs to be told.

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