Editor's Note: The struggle of finding and matching a missing loved one to an unidentified body is an intense and emotional time for family members. Often they must go through it all without being able to share the story of their loved one or offer recommendations on how to improve the process. If you are currently attempting to have a missing family member identified, you are welcome to contact us with your story.
A man who had formerly been known only as John Doe for nearly 31 years was recently identified as James Wray Miller. James accidentally drowned in 1987 after jumping into the Sacramento River to rescue several strangers whose vehicle had plunged into the water due to the sudden and mistaken lifting of the Tower Bridge.
Identifying James Wray Miller as the man who had given his life to save others was an arduous process. He was originally misidentified and his body was cremated without being able to gather crucial biometric information; this created an even more difficult situation in properly identifying the man. After the original misidentification was resolved, a con artist then claimed the man to be his brother in a short-lived attempt to obtain a death certificate in his own name.
Kristene Feldhaus is the daughter of James Wray Miller, as well as the driving force behind making sure he would eventually be accurately named. She has kindly written a guest post for theunidentified.org about what it was like to search for her missing father and how complicated these situations become when dealing with multiple agencies, each with their own set of protocols. Aided by the exceptional help of NamUs Regional Administrator Melissa Gregory, Kristene was recently able to confirm her father's identity. Read her story below:
About a little over a year ago I finally got sick of wondering if my dad was dead or alive. I had been married for nearly 12 years and just had my 5th child. I felt like my children had been robbed of knowing their grandfather. Realistically I had been robbed of so much as a childhood without Dad with me. Some of my first memories are of me crying and wishing my father had taken me with him. Why didn’t Dad love me enough to come back for me? Grandma told me years later, after we had reconnected, that Dad absolutely loved me and she was sure he was dead or he would have been back.
I reached out to his old friends and family and had been taken on a path that was not the right one, but had gotten me started. I joined a few unidentified and missing Facebook pages and went to work. Even while driving on our family vacation to Disney World I was calling coroners to inquire about Does. Learning about the rate of decay in certain regions is amazing and quite outstanding. One coroner asked me if I had put my DNA sample in with NamUs, suggesting that if my dad had a sample out there we’d find him rather fast. Contacting NamUs gave me hope that I could have answers. I wanted to give myself peace and give my grandmother answers. She deserved to know if her son was deceased. My grandfather died 10 years after Dad disappeared and it breaks my heart to know he left this life without answers.
Finally, contact was established with Melissa Gregory from NamUs and she set me down the right road. I had created Dad's missing profile in July but had to wait until September to get my sample sent down to UNT (Editor's note: NamUs DNA samples are processed through UNTCHI, The University of North Texas Center for Human Identification). Around November I called UNT to see if my sample was close. They wouldn’t relay this information directly to me so I asked Melissa to reach out to them. Then the bad news came that made me furious: Ames Police Department refused to acknowledge Dad as a missing person! Without that missing person case number, my dad's profile was not public to anyone but myself and Melissa. How could they do this? I was flabbergasted! DCI and Melissa had to convince Ames to allow the sample to go onto testing. Even now, my dad's profile is PENDING---even after the answers that the YOLO County John Doe had positively been declared my father, they still had his profile as pending. In my eyes that department did not care about my family or my father. All this time I had kept this quiet from Grandma because I didn’t want her to be stressed out. I wanted to give her those answers. Eventually she would find out that I was looking when my Uncle told her that the Doe I was looking at was not Dad. But I was convinced that I was right. I saw myself in that Doe. I knew I was right. Fast forward to April--I had Grandma send her DNA sample in because a parent is better for comparison. The same Detective that told me she thought Dad had just ran off was the one taking the DNA sample, which was quite ironic really.
Shortly after Grandma’s DNA swab was taken, she started getting sick and started experiencing a lot of pain. I reached out to the coroner and Melissa Gregory, making it clear that there was not much more time. The calls became more desperate as I wanted her to have those answers. I wanted it more than words can describe. On June 3rd I was called into her hospice room and as soon as she knew I was there she said, “Now all my children are here” and that hit me in my gut. I was Grandma's connection to her missing son and she was my connection to my missing father. We needed each other for that hole in our souls. Grandma passed away two days later without the answers---though my faith knows that Dad was there for her and she knew before I did.
Family vacation had just started and I was unloading our van. The one time my phone is not on me and I miss that phone call from the coroner. I immediately called her back to get the words I already knew--my dad had died while trying to save strangers who were screaming for help after they landed in the Sacramento River. The bridge operator had taken it upon himself to get drunk the night my dad died. On September 19th, 1987, the Tower Bridge operator failed to activate the safety devices as the bridge lifted to an approaching tourist boat. The driver of the truck drove straight off the bridge into the river, killing 3 people that night. Two people in the truck died, with only one surviving. A transient risked his life and ended up cremated and falsely identified which landed his ashes in the YOLO County Coroners Department for over 30 years.
This man had 16 exclusions ruling out other missing men but I knew mine would be that match. There were too many features on that Doe that matched Dad--his cleft chin, upper partial bridge, weight, height, mustache, hair color. Yet I had so many people dismiss my findings. I am glad I didn’t listen to the naysayers. Sometimes I let it get to me but other times I just moved forward. My dad died a hero and he deserved more than to sit in an urn for 30 years without a name. He had a family who loved him and they waited for him to come home. I refused to wait any longer because I knew it was up to his only child to get him home. Soon I will have his ashes in my possession and when that happens it will be the most wonderful day to have him back. My heart hurts for my family, myself, him, and those who lost their lives that night.
My family assumed that law enforcement and the FBI were actively searching for dad, however those agencies are not as motivated as family when it comes to tracking down family. If you have a missing family member then you must rely on yourself and no one else for motivation and determination to find your loved one.