SILVANA — When she moved back to her hometown of Silvana with her husband in the early 1990s, Margaret Ames would go blueberry picking at the farm on the east side of town.
She met the farmer, Spencer Fuentes, through the Lutheran church. In polite conversation, it just never came up that Fuentes had found a body while fly-fishing the Stillaguamish River in July 1980.
The dead man, caught in a logjam in the river by the farm, had gray hair. Stubble peppered his wide jaw. He wore a dark suit jacket and cotton pants, held up by a belt with letters on the buckle: G-R-N. In his Winthrop dress shoes were arch supports made of paper, leather and metal. He wore long underwear. He had likely been dead for months.
Forty-two years later, he was finally identified. It was a case cracked by advances in DNA technology, paired with forensic genealogy research. It’s now one of roughly a dozen cases of unidentified remains solved in Snohomish County using similar techniques in the past five years. Only four more remain unidentified.
Authorities confirmed the man’s name Thursday at a press conference. He was Othaniel Philip Ames, a dairyman from the Midwest born Aug. 23, 1898.
Othaniel’s daughter-in-law, Margaret Ames, now 81, knew he lost touch with some of his family members around 1980. A few months before the body was found, while in poor health, Othaniel Ames had told other family members he was going on a trip. It doesn’t appear anybody made a missing-person report.
At the time he vanished, Otie was 82 years old.
“There’s been many times when I thought about Otie, and whatever happened to him,” Margaret Ames said. “So this has brought closure to me.”
‘I can very clearly see him’
A pair of military draft cards give the broad strokes of the former John Doe’s life.
He was born on Aug. 23, 1898, in Elwood, Iowa.
He was a young man, just 20, when the United States entered World War I. His registration card was stamped in Bonesteel, South Dakota, with a population of 600 at the time. The town has since dwindled to 250, as people like Othaniel Ames left for greener pastures. At age 43, he would have been a senior draftee when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. He fought in neither conflict.
On one draft card under his employer’s name, his answer was written in flowing cursive: “Self.”
Just months before the great stock market crash in 1929, he married Lydia Knuth, 25, in a town of a few dozen residents, Cottonwood, South Dakota. (Twelve people live there today.)
Between the wars, in 1936, the farmer moved across the country with his pregnant wife and kids, towing a trailer behind a Dodge automobile. They had two daughters and two sons, all of whom have since died. The boy born in Washington was Walter Ames, who would later serve in the Air Force and marry a young woman with Norwegian heritage named Margaret, who grew up in Silvana.
The daughter-in-law kept letters from brothers of Othaniel’s wife, Lydia, “asking about how the land was out there” in Western Washington. Othaniel Ames and his boys built the farm buildings on their 22 acres off 132nd Street NE, where the family kept seven dairy cows, all with names starting with the letter J.
“He’d milk them twice a day as farmers do, by hand, set the milk out by the road for whoever to pick it up,” said his grand-niece, Dianne Elledge, 74, who would visit on weekends every so often.
Lydia, “like most women of that era, could cook anything on that wood stove,” Elledge said.
The husband kept a lathe in the basement. He’d fashion salt and pepper shakers, or other small tools that he’d just give away.
“In that time period, people did a lot of things for themselves out of necessity,” Elledge said.
Over the years Othaniel Ames also worked at a shingle mill. In his spare time he made dandelion wine, his grand-niece said. She still has the handwritten recipe.
- 1 gal dandelion blooms (pack)
- 1 gal boiling water
- let stand 24 hours, strain, add 3 pound white-sugar, 3 lemons and 3 oranges
Often he was stern, Elledge recalled. He was a farmer: He was always working. But he had a sense of humor.
“I can very clearly see him leaning back in his chair at meal time and laughing out loud,” Elledge said, “where Lydia, his wife, was very quiet.”
‘I don’t know why’
Sometime in the 1960s, Othaniel and Lydia Ames separated.
“I know there was possibly some friction, since both boys went into the service when they were teenagers,” Margaret Ames said. There was also tragedy and immense stress in the family. Among other untimely deaths, one of the couple’s daughters died in a car crash on a trip to her 10th high school reunion.
But as far as the daughter-in-law knew, there seemed to be no outward marital problems.
“So we really don’t know why they separated and that kind of thing,” Margaret Ames said.
The Ames family sold off the farm northeast of Marysville. They never did get an official divorce, the daughter-in-law said. Lydia moved to Everett. Othaniel moved to a small cabin in the woods, up in the hills near Arlington, on Ebey Mountain Road.
“I was there a couple times, and I wouldn’t have a clue how to get there now,” Elledge said. “I know it was high enough that he would get some snow.”
There, he grew dahlias. He liked the flowers, and Elledge suspects he might have liked them for his homemade wine, too. He didn’t have an indoor bathroom, but he’d hollowed out a huge stump that became his outhouse. He’d trained his dog to close the door by backing into it.
The last time Elledge saw him around early 1980, he was not well. He coughed, bringing up phlegm. He wasn’t the type to go to a doctor.
“He worked outside all his life and there was no way he was going to be cooped up in an institution,” Elledge said.
Before he disappeared, he gave Elledge and her husband his old car, which was only worth a couple hundred dollars. He whispered to them that somewhere inside, he had hidden a “$20 emergency fund.”
“He also gave us a vintage shotgun, a very nice gun, and — I don’t know why he gave them to us,” she recalled. Later, a sister suggested he liked Elledge because she had invited him to her wedding.
Othaniel Ames told family he was going to take a tour of the country to see friends and relatives, starting on the West Coast.
“I just assume because he was ill, and saw the end coming, he just went up into the woods and died there,” Elledge said.
Sometime around Jan. 8, 1980, he gave a small Bible about the size of a passport to his grand niece, Kay Taylor. She knows the date, she said Thursday, because it was inscribed on a dedication page. Around the same time, family lore suggests Othaniel Ames gave away the deed to his cabin to a nursing student, who may have been a neighbor.
“I would love to know what reason he had given her as to why he was signing over his house to her, but I would love to know who she is, and what the backstory is on that,” Taylor said. “She no longer owns the house. I’ve done the research that it was sold some years, quite a few years, ago.”
On July 23, 1980, a teenage fisherman caught the smell of what he thought was a dead animal in the Stillaguamish, on a warm day when the river ran low, ankle deep in places. Spencer Fuentes saw something hung up in logs at the edge of his family’s blueberry and hazelnut farm. He looked closer. He saw a man’s arms and tattered clothes being tugged downstream.
A sheriff’s deputy responded, but was skeptical, since nobody had been reported missing in or near the river. He confirmed it was a body, with no clear identity.
Deputies figured he could have wound up in the river for any reason: an accident while fishing, suicide, anything. Drowning was ruled out as a cause of death. The body’s condition suggested he had been dead for months. Investigators’ best guess was that he was in his 30s to his 70s.
An autopsy suggested he may have succumbed to coronary artery disease. Arteries that carried blood to his heart were hard and narrow. It’s common among the elderly and those with diabetes, high blood pressure or alcohol problems. As was standard in 1980, the unidentified body was buried, at a plot in the Arlington Municipal Cemetery. The bones remained there for decades, labeled as a John Doe, until the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office exhumed the remains in late 2017, with the hope of recovering DNA.
In 2018, forensic anthropologist Dr. Kathy Taylor examined the unearthed remains. She estimated they belonged to a grown man with Caucasian, Hispanic or Native American ancestry — a red herring for investigators, who thought he might have had Coast Salish heritage due to the proximity of the Tulalip Reservation. The man likely stood from 5-foot-5 to 5-foot-9, and he was most likely 45 to 59 years old, Dr. Taylor opined. There was no obvious evidence of homicide or a deadly accident in the bones, though the man had “well-healed rib and spinal compression fractures,” according to the Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office.
An article in The Daily Herald featured an attempted reconstruction of the dead man’s face based on his skull in March 2019. It brought some fresh interest in the case, but Margaret Ames — a subscriber to the Sunday newspaper — missed the article at the time.
Meanwhile, Snohomish County death investigator Jane Jorgensen mailed a section of the femur to the University of North Texas for DNA extraction, so it could be uploaded into an FBI database of felons, known as CODIS. Months later, in March 2019, the successfully extracted DNA found no matches. Over the next three years, other potential missing-person cases were ruled out through DNA testing and dental records.
In 2021, the medical examiner’s office began working with Othram, Inc. to obtain another DNA profile that could be used for genetic genealogy — the same kind of DNA family research used to discover long lost relatives on Ancestry.com or GEDmatch.
In Snohomish County, the medical examiner’s office and sheriff’s office have used the same technique to crack other high-profile cold cases, including the landmark double-homicide case of young Canadian couple Jay Cook and Tanya Van Cuylenborg, which saw a breakthrough after three decades.
In the “Stilly Doe” case, the Othram lab work was funded by DNASolves.com. After several tries, Othram managed to extract enough of a DNA profile for upload to GEDmatch. It revealed the man was, in fact, Caucasian, and that fifth- to seventh-cousins had shared their DNA on the public ancestry website.
Usually, you need a second-cousin match or closer to begin building usable family trees. Oregon genealogist Deb Stone, of Kin Forensics, began the arduous task of sifting through 12,000 distant relatives, with the hope of mapping out the tangled web of this man’s family, ultimately with the hope of finding his name.
In May 2022, the Othram DNA profile was uploaded to another ancestry site, FamilyTreeDNA.com. Again, matches were scarce and distant. But some were new.
Stone found what appeared to be a distant match’s great-great-great-grandparents, who had descendants in Washington. Stone spoke to a relative whose uncle Othaniel went missing from Arlington in 1980 when he was 82, “which was significantly older than the unidentified person was estimated to be,” according to the medical examiner’s office.
Investigators tracked down Othaniel Ames’ granddaughter. DNA testing confirmed he was the Stilly Doe.
Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Matt Lacy officially identified the decedent in September.
“I would hope this becomes a very routine technique in the next few years,” Othram’s CEO David Mittelman said Thursday. “And you can kind of see, just following along in Snohomish County, just over the last couple of years, the near-emptying of the entire backlog of the unidentified.”
At the press conference Thursday, relatives gathered in Everett. Some shied away from the cameras. Others shared memories of small things, like how they knew Otie always wore long underwear, even in the warm seasons. Othaniel Ames last surviving child Walter died in 2008. His widow, Margaret, held her father-in-law’s remains in front of cameras and outstretched microphones, alongside two of her children.
“It’s … it’s … it’s closure,” she said.
The day after the family was notified, Othaniel’s grandson Doug Ames took the day off work and drove out to Silvana to see Fuentes and his family, “to thank him.” The family is still weighing what to do next, but they’ve talked about burying Othaniel Ames alongside other family, or returning his ashes to South Dakota.
As for the belt buckle, marked with the letters G-R-N, it’s still unclear if that was ever really a clue. At least to Elledge, the letters meant nothing.
“It’s probably something,” she said, “he found at a thrift store.”