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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Case closed: Long search solves ‘Michael mystery’

Rebecca Nappi The Spokesman-Review

This is the second in a four-part “Cold Case” series on a recent quest by Spokane County medical examiner’s office staffers to identify a John Doe found dead of natural causes in downtown Spokane in 1983. Last Saturday’s column explained that John Doe’s name was discovered April 12 through a fingerprint match by the FBI.

They knew his name now: Michael Keith Roberts. But they wanted to know more. Why did he die destitute at age 30? Were Michael’s parents still alive? Did they wonder what happened to their son?

Answering the questions became a team effort for medical examiner staffers. Their office is located in the basement of a nondescript building near Holy Family Hospital, and they placed Michael’s file in a central place. Throughout the spring, they all dipped into the Michael mystery.

Theresa Giannetto, a staff assistant, took a special interest because the mother in her wondered how Michael’s mother lived with the knowledge that her child had wandered off into adult oblivion. Giannetto (who two weeks ago took a new job as manager of records for the Spokane Police Department) had a knack for finding and comforting next of kin.

Michael’s birth certificate, easily tracked down after the FBI fingerprint match, showed that he was born at Tacoma General Hospital on Jan. 22, 1953. His mother’s name: Olga Lee Salonisen. His father: Merlin Lloyd Roberts. If alive, his mother would be 71, his father, 77.

Michael had enlisted in the Navy but was given a medical discharge after three days, and through Michael’s military records, staffers discovered that his father, Merlin, died when Michael was a young boy.

Shouldn’t be too hard to find Olga, Giannetto figured, because Salonisen is not a common name. She started calling Salonisens throughout the country. Early on, she reached a Gary Salonisen in California. He told her he was related to every Salonisen in the United States.

He wasn’t sure, but he believed that Olga had married his dad’s brother, but it was a short-lived marriage, and no one got to know Olga. But Salonisen was listed as her maiden name on Michael’s birth certificate, and it didn’t seem likely that she would have a husband before Merlin, because she was only 19 when Michael was born.

More dead ends followed. On the morning of May 26, after weeks of phone calls and letters and e-mails in search of Olga, Giannetto felt so discouraged that she wrote “case closed” in her Michael notes.

That very afternoon, Social Security Administration contacts informed her that Olga had remarried after Merlin Roberts. Her name was Olga Cole. But, alas, she had died Sept. 21, 1995, in Washington state. Giannetto then located Olga Cole’s death certificate which revealed the name and hometown of her widowed husband.

Giannetto easily found a phone number for “Mr. Cole.” (Cole didn’t want to talk to the media nor have his first name or current hometown revealed.)

Giannetto told Cole she was calling about Michael Keith Roberts. Cole said, “He’s my stepson.”

He had raised Michael from early childhood. He was a child prone to violent outbursts, Cole said, and by his late teens, it was obvious he suffered from mental illness, most likely schizophrenia.

He and Olga had provided him a middle-class life, even though they moved around for Cole’s corporate job. Michael’s younger siblings turned out fine, but Michael took off at 18. He returned home one time, distraught and destitute.

Olga and Cole built Michael an apartment above their garage and tried to get him help. Soon Michael told them, “I can’t go to the dentist, because when they put injections in my mouth; they put demons there, too.” And then, he was off again.

Over the years, they’d get calls from mental institutions saying Michael had checked in, but he never stayed long enough for them to locate him. Eventually, all contact ceased.

Olga grew into older age fearing that her son had died. Her intuition was correct. Michael died a Spokane street person, 12 years before her. After Olga’s death, Cole found a bundle of Michael’s papers, tied together with a blue ribbon. He threw them out.

If Olga were alive, Cole told Giannetto, she would request that Michael’s body be exhumed and sent home to her for burial. But Cole said he didn’t care to see Michael’s unmarked grave at Fairmount Memorial Park nor attend a planned memorial service for Michael.

The World War II veteran compared it to the men buried in the sea after the Pearl Harbor attack. They are entombed where they dropped, as it should be. Let the dead rest. Giannetto sensed she had opened a very old wound.

“Do you mind if we put a headstone on Michael’s grave?” Giannetto asked him.

Cole hesitated, then said: “Do what you need to do.”

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