In the spring of 1916, a bootlegger in Idaho escaped from jail by hiding a saw in his shoe and using it to cut his way out of his cell. A few months later, the man murdered his common law wife by “beating her brains out with an ax,” according to a local newspaper.
At her funeral, one of his children told a reporter, “Papa never stayed in jail very long and he’ll soon be out.” A couple of weeks later, he did it again, escaping from yet another jail with the old saw-in-the-boot trick.
This week, more than a century later, officials in Clark County, Idaho, announced that Joseph Henry Loveless, the bootlegging escape artist, had been found. Of course, he is long dead. And it had been years since anyone was actively looking for him.
But in solving one mystery, investigators helped solve another. Since 1979, the authorities in Idaho had been trying to identify a torso that had been stuffed in a burlap sack in a cave. Now, they have learned that the torso belongs to Loveless.
Given that the bootlegger appears to have died in 1916, his case is almost certainly the oldest to be cracked with forensic genealogy, a rapidly expanding forensic technique that uses individuals’ relatives in genealogy databases to identify human remains and crime scene DNA.
“He died 103 years ago; he was born in 1870,” said Anthony Lukas Redgrave, a team leader for the DNA Doe Project, an organization that works with law enforcement to identify unclaimed remains. “It’s absolutely the oldest ID we’ve ever made.”
The mystery of the remains began on Aug. 26, 1979, according to the DNA Doe Project, when a family hunting for arrowheads discovered a man’s headless torso buried in a shallow grave within a network of volcanic caves in eastern Idaho.
On March 30, 1991, an 11-year-old girl exploring in the same cave system came across a mummified hand. Excavating the surrounding area for additional clues, officials later found an arm and two legs wrapped in burlap.
Researchers and students from Idaho State University spent months searching for his head, but it never turned up. Last year they began working with the DNA Doe Project to try to identify the remains from a piece of the tibia, a long leg bone.
The DNA was high quality — unusual for so old a sample, according to Justin Loe of Full Genomes, a genetic services company involved in the case. He suspects that may have to do with the conditions in the volcanic cave.
Samantha Blatt, a bioarcheologist at Idaho State University, said the temperature of the cave sand— around 37 Fahrenheit — might have contributed to the fact that the mummified remains retained an odor of decomposition, which was rare after so many years. Also, his sock was almost perfectly preserved.
“It’s a complete sock,” she said. “It looks like it could be from my house.”
After uploading a profile to various DNA databases, genetic genealogists began looking for relatives. Beyond DNA matches and relatives’ family trees, the clue that proved most critical was a wanted poster, Mr. Redgrave said. The clothes he was wearing when he escaped — a “light colored hat, brown coat, red sweater, blue overalls over black trousers” — were an exact match for the clothes found on “Clark County John Doe,” he said.
To confirm their hypothesis, the genealogists needed a close relative. After several months, the Clark County Sheriff’s Department in Dubois, Idaho, located the bootlegger’s 87-year-old grandson. A deputy drove to California to ask him to take a DNA test. The man agreed, and the test confirmed that the remains belonged to his grandfather.
Investigators did not know why Loveless was killed and buried in the cave, but Dr. Blatt had a theory: revenge. Shortly after he broke out of jail, his wife’s family came to retrieve her body, meaning they were in the area at the time of his death. Given that most everyone thought Loveless was responsible for his wife’s grisly slaughter, her family might have dismembered him as payback, she said.
Over the past two years, a growing number of law enforcement agencies have turned to genetic genealogy to identify human remains and solve other crimes. One of many questions that have been raised around this contentious practice is why some cases get the special treatment — involving dozens of volunteers, costly external contractors and special law enforcement resources — while others don’t.
Mr. Redgrave pointed out that when they began, they had no idea what kind of person they were identifying or when he died.
“Everyone matters,” he said. “That’s the point.”
The Clark County Sheriff’s Department is now investigating Loveless’s 1916 murder. The saw he used to escape from jail had yet to be found.