Advances in DNA technology led to the identification of a body found almost 40 years ago

EVERETT, November 10, 2022– Today, staff at the Snohomish County Medical Examiner Office (SCMEO) announced the identification of “I-5 Stilly Doe,” a person found in the Stillaguamish River over 40 years ago, as Othaniel Philip Ames.

It was a normal day when Kay Thomas checked her mailbox after work, but a message caught her interest. This message from Deb Stone of the Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office said that nearly 40 years ago, a body was found in the Stillaguamish River that had just been identified as her great-uncle, Othaniel Philip Ames.

Othaniel Ames
Othaniel Philip Ames. Photo courtesy of the Snohomish County Coroner.

Incredulous at first, Thomas dismissed the news as a scam until her daughter Bonnie Thomas reminded her that there were some items in the downstairs sewing room believed to belong to a “distant relative”. Opening a small pocket Bible, she was shocked to find the name on the inside cover read “Ottie” Ames, dated 1980 – the year he went missing.

“I heard the news and said [to myself] call her back,” Bonnie Thomas told the Lynnwood Times. “I sat and listened as they solved the case.”

Othaniel Ames
Kay Thomas, great-niece of Othaniel Philip Ames, holds his Bible. Lynnwood Times | Kienan Briscoe.

Ames’ body was discovered by a fly fisherman in the Stillaguamish River near Arlington on July 23, 1980, but could not be identified until the Snohomish County Medical Examiner received recent advanced DNA extraction techniques and genetic genealogy. At the time, Dr. Clayton Haberman, a local pathologist, found no evidence of trauma or evidence of drowning, but severe coronary artery disease was present, leading to the finding that the cause of death was “obvious natural” causes. However, the man’s identity could not be established, even after a local dentist, Dr. Keith Leonard, had compared his dental records to known missing persons.

Now, 28 years later, Detective Jim Scharf with the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office Cold Case Team, along with retired Snohomish County Superior Court Judge Ken Cowsert, has re-investigated cases of unidentified persons in the county, believing that improvements in DNA technology could help solve them. You were right.

In September 2018, the late Dr. Kathy Taylor, who worked as a forensic anthropologist in Washington state, determined that the remains were that of an adult male, likely Caucasian, about 5ft 9in tall, strung with an “I-5 Stilly Doe.” “ – the nickname of the body found in 1980.

From 2018 to 2021, Jane Jorgenson used the SCMEO to exclude many potentially missing persons through DNA comparisons and other measures.

After several tests, including more post-mortem dental exams, X-rays, and Othram Inc. extracting DNA from a section of the deceased’s femur, Deb Stone identified a possible match: an Othaniel Philip Ames. After reaching out to Ames’ family and hearing they had a relative who disappeared around the same time the body was found and testing Ames’ granddaughter’s DNA to confirm, Stone determined that I -5 Stilly Doe was actually Ottie Ames.

Ames moved to Washington from the Midwest in 1951 with his wife and children. He worked in a paper mill and owned a small dairy farm in Arlington with seven cows whose names all began with the letter “J”. He loved storytelling, playing checkers and wore long underwear all year round, even in the summer. In the early 1960s, after he and his wife separated, Ames built himself a cabin in the mountains at 18014 EB Mountain Road. He was last known alive in early 1980 after telling relatives he was traveling to California and Oregon to visit relatives. He was 82.

Othaniel Ames
Image collage by Othaniel Philip Ames. Lynnwood Times | Kienan Briscoe.

The Lynnwood Times asked Ames’ family if they had any idea what drew him to the river that day, whether he was a fisherman or a hiker, but they had no idea. Many of them had lost contact over the years.

“It was always a mystery, having no idea where he was, knowing if he was dead, and to do all of that through this amazing technology, it was just mesmerizing,” said Diane Ames, Othaniel’s granddaughter. “It’s a closure for the family”

Othram Inc.’s David Mittleman said many of these unresolved cases are simply awaiting resolution of funding. The use of DNA technology requires a complex budgeting and approval process necessary to secure the funds needed to complete the work. Although Othram Inc. has had the funding necessary to successfully identify 11 Ames-like cases in recent years, they are still awaiting funding to solve their remaining seven cases.

Othaniel Ames
Margret Ames (centre), stepdaughter of Othaniel Philip Ames, holds his ashes. She is dating Douglas and Diane Ames. Lynnwood Times | Kienan Briscoe.

“It’s important to realize that there are so many more of these unidentified individuals, numbering in the tens of thousands, maybe even more than hundreds of thousands, in the US alone who have never been linked to a name or family,” Mittleman said. “We now have technology that works, we now have technology that can robustly and routinely identify these people.”

Mittleman added that testing alone can cost around $1,000 to $5,000 per body, not including labor costs associated with the testing process.

“This is not an extraordinary event, it’s almost an ordinary event,” Mittleman said. “It’s the result of bringing together bright minds, hard-working investigators, and a little bit of money to make this all possible. I hope this becomes a very routine technique in the years to come.”

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