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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Remains at Priest Lake bottom yield identity mystery

Asia Hege The Spokesman-Review

While the Bonner County coroner examines some skeletal remains recently brought up from the bottom of Priest Lake, researchers and historians hope that clothing and a boat found nearby will provide clues to the victim’s identity.

Authorities believe the remains, found near Eight Mile Island, are 50 to 100 years old.

Sgt. Gary Johnston of the Bonner County Sheriff’s Office said Thursday the department is getting calls from possible family members of the victim. They will collect DNA samples from possible descendants to create a database for comparison.

The wooden boat, anchored in sediment about 240 feet from the body, is typical of the 1900s, and some clothing found with the remains should provide more clues about the time period, said Gene Ralston of Ralston & Associates of Kuna, Idaho.

Ralston and his wife, Sandi, consulting biologists who have been involved in several North Idaho search-and-rescue operations, came across the skeletal remains in 2004. At the time, they didn’t have the equipment to do the research they wanted. They’ve since purchased their own remote operated vehicle, or ROV, which they used from their boat, the Kathy G, to bring up a portion of the remains.

This winter they also met Silvia Pettem, a historical researcher and author of the book “Someone’s Daughter,” which details how she identified a murder victim’s remains in Boulder, Colo. They decided Pettem’s expertise would help them be better able to identify the remains.

“Silvia was the inspiration behind us going back to Bonner County to request the permits to bring up the remains,” Ralston said. “We’re very grateful to Bonner Country for letting us go back.”

Pettem helped them learn of a dozen potential identities, but most have been ruled out. “So far, I have researched every known drowning in Priest Lake that I could find through online sources. I’m hopeful, now, that the rowboat found near the body will provide some clues, at least as to the approximate date of the drowning. Once this can be narrowed down, I will start reading old newspapers (on microfilm, through inter-library loan) to see if I can track down anyone else who might have been missing,” Pettem wrote in an e-mail.

“We still have a long way to go,” Ralston said.

The remains were located south of Indian Creek State Park, 320 feet deep, where Ralston estimates the water temperature does not rise above 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

The depth and temperature of the water helped preserve the remains, Ralston said.

While the proximity of the remains and the boat appears to connect them, Johnston said, “We can’t say the boat and remains are 100 percent linked. Circumstantially, yes, but for positive, no.”

After the coroner’s evaluation, the remains will be sent to Professor Greg Hampikian at Boise State University for DNA testing, probably in mid- to late June, Johnston said. Based on the results, there will be a search to find matches from possible relatives, Ralston said.

“I don’t think anyone should go to his or her grave, or, in this case, to the bottom of a lake, without a name. I would like to see the body identified, properly buried, and the family notified. I believe we, as a society, owe it to this drowning victim, and I’m glad to help if I can,” Pettem said.

Pettem will come to Spokane July 16 to present her work on the Boulder identification.

“I hope to meet people who will be able to offer additional suggestions for identifying the body in the Priest Lake case,” she said.