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Friday, September 29, 2023
Sept. 29, 2023

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Remains identified in 2002 Ridgefield cold case

32-year-old James Orin Johnson identified through DNA

By , Columbian staff reporter
2 Photos
Candy Hallanger and James Orin Johnson. Johnson's remains were found outside Ridgefield in 2002.
Candy Hallanger and James Orin Johnson. Johnson's remains were found outside Ridgefield in 2002. (Provided photo) Photo Gallery

For the past 20 years, Candy Hallanger had come up with a variety of theories for the disappearance of her former husband and father of her three children. But on Aug. 31, she received a phone call that finally put her theories to rest.

The Clark County Medical Examiner’s Office announced Tuesday it had identified remains found Jan. 13, 2002, in Ridgefield as 32-year-old James Orin Johnson.

The identification of Johnson’s remains is the latest example of investigators utilizing advanced DNA technology and increasingly popular genealogy databases to help solve decades-old cold cases.

For Hallanger, the news is bittersweet.

“It’s a big relief and a heartbreak, especially for the kids who didn’t have a chance to know their dad, because he was a good dad when he was around,” Hallanger told The Columbian on Tuesday.

Staff at the medical examiner’s office submitted a DNA sample from the remains to Bode Technology, a DNA lab in Virginia, which then linked the remains to two sisters born in the mid-1800s in Oregon, according to an agency news release. Investigators compiled a list of other people distantly related to the sisters.

People encouraged to upload DNA

The Clark County Medical Examiner’s Office encourages people to upload their DNA profiles to genealogy programs, such as GEDmatch and FamilyTreeDNA, and opt in to public searches. The agency said doing this can help investigators match DNA to unidentified remains, provide closure to families and help law enforcement identify suspects of violent crime.

Christine Holroyd, an investigator with the medical examiner’s office, spent months contacting potential relatives about any missing male family members. In May, Nikki Costa, the office’s operations manager, met with a descendant of the sisters, Arlene Zumwalt. The DNA she provided helped the agency determine which side of the family tree to pursue, the news release states.

In August, staff from the Bode lab determined the unidentified man was likely a biological son of Judith Cox Johnson. Her son, James Orin Johnson, had no traceable activities since mid-2001, according to the medical examiner’s office.

Costa tracked down James Johnson’s children. His son, Jaccob Johnson, 27, confirmed the family hadn’t heard from his father in more than 20 years, the agency said.

When he got the call that investigators believed they found the remains of James Johnson, Jaccob Johnson said he panicked, thinking they meant his older brother by the same name. But when they told him the body was found in a wooded area near Ridgefield, he knew they meant his father; he said he just talked to his brother, who lives in California, the day before.

It was James Johnson Jr., 28, who uploaded his DNA to a program called GEDmatch, which allows users to opt in to law enforcement searches for forensic genealogy cases.

Forensic genealogists at Bode determined Johnson Jr.’s DNA sample matched the remains in a parent-child relationship. Clark County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Martha Burt agreed that the previously unidentified man was James Johnson Sr., according to the news release.

“This great work by our team helped to provide a family with answers they had been waiting 20 years to receive,” Burt said in the news release. “The medical examiner’s office is committed to finding the names of all unidentified decedents in Clark County.”

Waiting for answers

On Sept. 17, Costa met with James Johnson Sr.’s family — Hallanger; Jaccob Johnson and his wife, Kathryn; and daughter Catreena Johnson, 25 — to tell them about the investigation that led to his identification.

“This was one of the most rewarding experiences of my career,” Costa said in the news release. “Jaccob gave me a hug that communicated so much. I will remember it for the rest of my days.”

Jaccob Johnson told The Columbian on Tuesday he thought he would never find out what happened to his father. He was 6 years old when his father disappeared.

Although most of his memories of his father were from during his parents’ divorce, he said this news has reminded him of the small, fond memories he has of him — like holding a flashlight while his father backed up the truck to their trailer.

Hallanger met James Johnson Sr. while they traveled with the carnival, when she was 18 years old. Eventually, she said they decided to settle down and start a family. Three kids later, James Johnson Sr. wanted to join back up with the carnival, and their lifestyles were no longer compatible, she said.

He told her he wanted to be a part of their children’s lives and visited a few times after that, she said. He also left California in search of his biological father in Southern Oregon for some time.

Eventually, he linked up with the carnival, which Hallanger believes took him to Ridgefield in the summer of 2001. He must have stuck around and spent the winter in Clark County, she said, before he died by suicide.

For years, whenever Hallanger took her children to the carnival, they looked for James Johnson Sr., but no one ever knew of him, she said. In 2003, Hallanger hired a private investigator to find him, according to the news release, but that was unsuccessful.

While the outcome is not what they were hoping for, Jaccob Johnson said the news has brought his family closer together. He’s seen relatives he hadn’t talked to since shortly after his father disappeared.

He and his siblings recently took a trip to Clark County to hike the forested area where their father’s body was found. This weekend, they’re giving their father a funeral in Idaho, where most of the immediate family lives now.

The family members said they are grateful to the investigators who didn’t give up on identifying their loved one’s remains.

“It’s a heartwarming feeling to know that that kind of effort goes into helping families in that way,” Jaccob Johnson said. “I think as much emotion as there’s been in this situation of finding him and knowing what’s happened to him, I think there’s been a lot more emotional draw over the years not knowing and wondering. To have that final realization of where he is is something that has actually brought the whole family together.”

From now on, Hallanger will remember her former husband by his smile, which she said he constantly wore.