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News / Northwest

Genetic genealogy IDs man who drowned over 50 years ago

Coroner report: 28-year-old’s death was accidental

By Garrett Cabeza, The Spokesman-Review, Spokane, Wash. (TNS)
Published: September 18, 2023, 8:18pm

SPOKANE—A man who drowned more than 50 years ago in the Spokane River was recently identified by the Spokane County Medical Examiner’s Office, thanks to forensic genetic genealogy.

A marina employee discovered the body, now identified as 28-year-old Bruce Frank Sherman, on Sept. 2, 1971, near the Division Street Bridge, according to a Spokane County Medical Examiner’s Office news release Friday.

The man appeared to be wearing jeans with a plain tattoo depicting the letters, “BS,” on his left forearm when he was found, according to the release. Officials at the time did not find personal belongings and the decomposed body prevented visual identification. The Spokane County Coroner determined the death to be an accidental drowning.

Fingerprints taken by the FBI in Washington, D.C., did not match any on file, the medical examiner’s office said. No other resources were available at the time, so the body was buried at Fairmount Cemetery as an unidentified person.

The case was added to the Doe Network and National Missing and Unidentified Persons System in 2007.

In August 2022, the medical examiner’s office received American Rescue Plan funds to help identify human remains using forensic genetic genealogy. The funds allowed the office to send a sample of Sherman’s remains to Othram Inc. in Texas to analyze the man’s sample, the release said.

A report of Sherman’s genetic network and geographical origins was returned to the office and the DNA profile was uploaded to genealogy databases. Death investigators from the medical examiner’s office used the resulting investigative leads to confirm and contact the man’s relatives, eventually reaching a brother and cousin who provided the name of a missing family member and details that aligned with the case.

A DNA sample from the brother was compared to a sample from Sherman, confirming his genetic relationship with Sherman and officially identifying the man as Sherman last month, the release said.

Sherman was born in Itasca County, Minn., and was a member of the Ojibwe Tribe. He moved to Washington with extended family in his 20s and went missing in the early 1970s.