Printed on: December 03, 2012

Boise coroner set on identifying found remains

DAN POPKEY
Idaho Statesman

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - For Boise County Coroner Pam Garlock, it's never too late to get things right.

Thirty-four years after a forestry student from Illinois was presumed drowned in the South Fork of the Payette River, Garlock is following leads she hopes will finally mean a new headstone for a lonely grave in the Idaho City Pioneer Cemetery.

Donnie Davis was a passenger in a Toyota station wagon that plunged into the river off Idaho 21 near Kirkham Hot Springs, about five miles east of Lowman. Police said the wreck was caused by driver Patrick Selle's speeding. Davis and Selle, both 21, were working for the Boise National Forest; both had been drinking in celebration of the Fourth of July.

Crashing shortly after 1 a.m. on July 5, 1978, Selle's badly battered Toyota station wagon was soon found, swept a half-mile downstream by snowmelt. Six weeks later, Selle's body was recovered, and his family from San Rafael, Calif., was able to give him a proper funeral.

But for Don Busch, there was no such clarity. Busch was Donnie's uncle and cared for the boy after his sister died and the father vanished. "I raised him since he was a baby, my mother and I," Busch told the Statesman. "He was like a son to me."

A year after the accident, Busch came from Chicago to Idaho City to meet Sheriff Stan Jensen. "They searched and searched and found nothing," Busch remembered.

The sheriff, who warned Busch that there wasn't much hope, called a couple of months later asking whether Donnie had ever broken a leg. A rib cage and arm and leg bones had been found about 30 miles downstream near Garden Valley; a leg appeared to have been fractured before death. But Busch told Jensen he was unaware of any such break.

Before DNA testing, with no teeth for dental identification, and only a belt and ragged jeans found with the bones, Busch declined to claim the dead.

"The family didn't want the remains unless they could be positively identified," Jensen recalled. "They felt like, 'If we're not really sure, we don't want to say he's dead.' I understand that."

Busch never had children of his own. But he went on with his life, delivering Old Style beer, a job he held for 25 years. Later, he moved to Phoenix, where he ran a pest-control company. Now 71 and retired, Busch hasn't forgotten the young man with the curly hair who was his hunting and fishing companion.

"I don't know how many times Don's thought maybe Donnie escaped somehow," said his wife, Alison. "Seeing the photos (of the ruined Toyota) it seemed pretty unlikely. But still."

Sometime between the recovery of the bones in August 1979 and April 1981, Sheriff Jensen and Coroner Dick Hanley enlisted the county road department to bury the remains. They placed a wooden marker reading, "J.D. 1979," for "John Doe."

There was no death certificate, which chagrins Garlock, who spent 18 years in the Idaho Army National Guard and became coroner in 2003. "Things like that happened back then," she said.

In September 1996, a jawbone was found by a fisherman near where the John Doe remains were recovered. The bone was simply put in a white box, given a case number and put on a shelf.

Last year, a clerk organizing the sheriff's evidence room became curious about the dusty white box marked "human bones." She took it to Garlock, who was both curious and upset.

"There's a standard you have to live by," she said. "I have remains, I need to know who they are. I need to rule out they belong to anybody I have as a missing person. The only way to do that is to go through the process."

The jawbone was shipped to the University of North Texas, which does free DNA testing. The jaw didn't match any of the four other missing persons in county files, but the results are now in the national Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS.

The next step came in late September. Hoping to match the jawbone DNA to the John Doe bones, Garlock obtained a permit from the state to exhume the remains. She was accompanied by her deputies; Robert Karenin, forensic supervisor for the Ada County Coroner's Office; an anthropology student from Boise State; and, as required by law, a funeral home employee. Gary Secor Jr. of Idaho City brought his small excavator.

They worked at the spot where the weathered "J.D." marker is surrounded by small stones and a sprig of artificial flowers. After uncovering about 400 square feet, the team came up empty and stopped for fear of disturbing other graves. Garlock figures the marker was dislodged by snowmelt and replaced, or moved by vandals.

Garlock is a fan of novelist Kathy Reichs, whose novels about forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan inspired Fox TV's "Bones."

She is working two more angles. She's searching for a member of the road crew who did the burial, hoping to find the right spot to dig again come spring. And she contacted Busch in Arizona and is seeking a DNA sample from a relative.

Garlock said she knows the case may never be solved but said she won't quit until every avenue is explored. So far, she has spent just $200 on the excavator and says county commissioners are supportive.

"We can't just take bones and do like they used to do back 30 years ago and put 'em in a box and say, 'This is good.' We've got DNA. They need to be determined who they are - if we can."

Standing by the weathered marker at the cemetery, Garlock spoke quietly. "I'd like to know. I think the family would like to know. If they could have closure, I think it would make a difference to them. I really do."

"I believe that's my nephew," Busch said. "And I'm on the verge of crying."