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News / Northwest

$8,000 and DNA genetic tests solve 2-year-old Eastern WA reservoir mystery

By Cameron Probert, Tri-City Herald
Published: October 9, 2023, 7:25am

KENNEWICK _ Antonio Juanes-Gaspar was struggling before he disappeared in 2021. The loss of his parents and brothers had left him despondent.

He was last seen at his Othello home on Aug. 5, 2021, and for more than two years no one knew where he’d gone, said Franklin County Coroner Curtis McGary.

That changed recently when McGary and county investigators used an $8,000 grant and DNA techniques to connect concerned family members to Juanes-Gaspar’s identity.

The investigation into his disappearance started in August 2021, when family members called authorities to report they hadn’t heard from the 39-year-old for days, according to an Othello Police Department Facebook post.

Officers searched nearby areas but found nothing. Family and friends also could find no clues to his whereabouts.

Nearly a year later, in May 2022, some boys who lived near Scooteney Reservoir west of Connell discovered skeletal remains in some willows along the shore while they were fishing.

They went back and told their dad who reported it to the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office.

The reservoir is a popular fishing spot about 35 miles north of the Tri-Cities near the border of Franklin and Adams counties. It sits on the northern border of Franklin County next to Highway 17.

Sheriff Jim Raymond sent out a news release about the discovery asking for any information that could lead to identifying the remains.

Only the man’s skeleton remained, nothing else to indicate who he might be. At the time, there were no recent missing persons reports, and no suspicious activity in the area.

And the bones showed no signs of foul play causing his death.

That could have easily been the end of the story, if it wasn’t for a police report filed by Juanes-Gaspar’s family, McGary said.

DNA connection

Commander Marcus Conner said the process of identifying the body took a lot of time and effort.

“We’ve been working on it since May,” Conner said. “Our detectives went through and tried to find any lead on any missing person. We came across this case in Othello that looked pretty promising.”

When they found Juanes-Gaspar’s missing person report, the next step was finding his relatives. Since he was a migrant farmworker, it was not an easy task, Conner said.

As they were looking for his relatives, McGary worked with the Spokane County Medical Examiner’s Office, who had money available to help with DNA identification.

The office has worked with Othram, a private DNA laboratory built to use parallel sequencing for forensic evidence. The Woodland, Texas company’s technology enables the U.S. National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, according to their website.

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Their laboratory has helped solve a 1978 murder in Spokane, identified the body of a man found in a wooded area near Newport and ID’d a man from a small fragment of his skull found in the Spokane River.

They’re also helping to identify a woman found in the Columbia River in 1986 in Benton County.

McGary said without the $8,000 grant, the coroner’s office didn’t have the money in its budget to pay for the process.

After finding Juanes-Gaspar’s cousin in Bremerton, the laboratory was able to confirm the remains found in the reservoir were his.

While his family believed he had died, they were happy to have closure and know the rest of what happened, McGary said.