Patty Dolan knew her brother was dead.
Having not heard from him since March 1995, she was confident of that.
But that didn’t stop her from feeling shock, remorse and guilt when in July, two Clark County Sheriff’s Office detectives drove up her rural Washougal driveway to deliver the news — his remains had been found.
“I knew he was gone, but there was always that kernel (of hope),” she said. “Now I know for sure.”
Dolan had reported her 53-year-old brother John Thomason missing in December of 1995. Thomason, who lived a transient lifestyle and stayed with Dolan on and off, regularly made a collect call to reach his sister and check in.
She had heard from him in March 1995, but when two family members died later that year and she thought of telling Thomason, she realized she hadn’t heard from him in several months.
“I thought, gee, John hasn’t called in a while,” she said. “He didn’t call and he didn’t call.”
So she reported him missing that December. Detectives mentioned he may be “voluntarily missing” because he had warrants out for his arrest. But because Thomason kept in regular touch with his sister, sheriff’s detectives
called it suspicious and left the case open.
Seventeen and a half years went by with no clues.
Closing a cold case
When the remains found in California were positively identified as those of Thomason, the sheriff’s office closed the case. It is the first cold case to be solved in recent memory, Clark County Detective Lindsay Schultz said.
“It’s significant because of the time that’s passed,” she said.
The agency’s cold cases include unsolved homicides and cases of missing people that include suspicious circumstances.
The break in the case came a year earlier, in July 2012, when a member of a work release crew that was cleaning an area near the Sacramento River in Redding, Calif., found human bones.
Enter Shasta County Major Crimes Detective Jim Beaupre.
Beaupre said that Shasta County has many outstanding missing-person cases, partly because people drown in Lake Shasta and remain “missing.”
So the detective is used to the work that goes along with matching up missing people to found human remains.
It took him a year to positively identify the bones as those of Thomason.
He started by getting the coroner’s dental X-rays and entering them into the National Crime Information Center. When he did that, he was alerted to 40 cases of missing people across the country who were possible matches.
He went through each one and compared the details of the dental records — looking at patterns in the teeth and comparing dental work.
“Each filling is like a fingerprint,” Beaupre said. “It shows up very uniquely on X-rays.”
When he identified the match, he passed it along to a forensic odontologist, an expert in dental evidence, who confirmed what Beaupre had found: The bones belonged to John Thomason of Washougal.
“I’ve looked at thousands upon thousands of these … so rarely a match is made,” he said.
In the past three years of doing this kind of work, Beaupre said he’s made two matches. One of those was Thomason.
The match was exciting, Beaupre said, because “it allows the family to have some closure. That’s the important thing.”
The finding made sense to Dolan — the last call that Thomason made to her, he was in Redding.
Over the years she had kept her eye on news of John Does between Redding and Washougal and even stopped at a Redding soup kitchen during a road trip one summer.
Because there was no sign of trauma to the remains, Beaupre told Dolan he thought Thomason may have fallen into the river. Dolan said he was likely drunk at the time.
End of a troubled life
“He was an alcoholic,” Dolan said. Thomason’s past is littered with drunken driving and drug possession convictions, and he even had several stints in prison for charges including robbery and burglary.
Dolan had let him stay with her, but she said he would always eventually fall off the wagon.
A few months before he went missing, she cut him off financially.
“I told him, ‘The last couple of years, I’m just giving you money to drink on,'” she said. The money, she said, was enabling him. “It just escalates with this disease.”
But after learning of her brother’s fate, Dolan said she felt partly guilty.
“I was hoping to help him; miracles can happen,” she said. “He was my brother, and I loved him.”
At first, she wanted to have her brother’s remains cremated and shipped to Washougal but decided instead to donate them to Chico State University, where they will be used as a study tool.
“I thought maybe John could contribute a little bit to society instead of taking away like he did,” she said.