When Donald Nyden’s body turned up in the Spokane River last summer, it didn’t take long to figure out who he was.
That’s largely because the medical examiner’s office asked for help from an unlikely source: Carl Koppelman, a former accountant from Southern California who’s something of a guru in the art of drawing the dead.
Nyden was 68 when someone found his body caught in some waterlogged branches near Browne’s Addition on June 4. He’d been a drifter, apparently spending time at homeless camps along the river.
Authorities thought he had been in the water for several days. They didn’t know his name.
The Spokane County Medical Examiner’s Office sent Koppelman a few photos of the autopsy. A day later he returned a portrait, having restored a sense of life to Nyden’s features – from the wrinkles under his eyes to the texture of his beard.
It was an image fit for publication by the local media.
“We got a phone call right away saying, ‘That’s our guy,’” said Elizabeth Nelson, an investigator from the medical examiner’s office.
A case manager from a local homeless shelter had recognized Nyden. From there, investigators used Veterans Affairs records to track down his brother, who lives in Virginia.
Nelson and Koppelman have worked together for about two years. They think they’re close to solving another case out of Spokane County.
The Millie case
It started on June 20, 1984, when two young men fishing near the T.J. Meenach Bridge found the naked body of a young woman in the river.
She had been dismembered, apparently with an ax, a hatchet or a knife.
“No head, no hands, no feet,” Nelson said.
Investigators figured she was from out of town because she didn’t match any local missing persons reports, and there hadn’t been any similar murders around that time.
The killer, who probably knew her well, had taken extreme measures to prevent her from being identified.
Tips have trickled in and dozens of people have been interviewed, but answers have eluded investigators for 33 years.
“It was a very unusual case, just a lot of aspects to it,” said Don Giese, a former Spokane police detective who worked on the investigation.
The coroner determined the woman was 20 to 35 years old and about 5 feet 7 inches tall, and that she’d had at least one baby. She had blonde body hair, a few scars on her legs and left arm, and two moles on the front of her neck.
The coroner thought she had been in the water for less than 48 hours, but later analysis suggested it could have been weeks because bodies decompose slowly in cold water.
About a month after the body was found, a neighborhood dog brought home the woman’s decomposing hand.
It was sent to an FBI lab in Washington, D.C. for fingerprinting. But Giese said the hand was somehow misplaced and police got back evidence from an unrelated case.
“Nothing ever came of that,” he said.
The investigation lulled until April 19, 1998, when a woman spotted a human skull while walking her dog on the lower South Hill. It had two vertrebrae still attached.
The lot, at the corner of Sherman Street and Seventh Avenue, had been a neighborhood dumping site for years. An excavation turned up no other remains or evidence.
DNA has since confirmed the skull matches the body, which is interred at Fairmount cemetery.
Giese said the investigation “really took off” off with the discovery of the skull.
Shortly after the skull was found, Giese took it to a forensic anthropologist in Western Washington. He brought his daughter, a fifth-grader at the time, with him.
Along the way they stayed at a motel, and while watching TV his daughter said, “Actually there’s three people in the room, so we ought to name her.”
So the woman from the river became “Millie” – a name that stuck throughout Giese’s tenure with the police department.
He retired in 2009 after 30 years on the force, hoping someone else would figure out Millie’s real name.
“It was one of those cases that I really wanted to solve but never was able to,” he said recently.
An unlikely break
In January 2015, Koppelman received a tip on Facebook, one of several websites he utilizes as an amateur sleuth. He learned that a woman from Blythe, California, had gone missing around 1980.
Relatives give varying accounts of her disappearance, but each version involves outlaw bikers and a bar or restaurant in neighboring Ehrenberg, Arizona.
It appears that no one reported her missing at the time, possibly because family members thought she had run away.
“We still don’t have confirmation that she is that person,” Koppelman said, “but if not, there are a lot of similarities.”
He had created a portrait based on images of the skull from the vacant lot on the South Hill. That portrait bears an unmistakable resemblance to an old yearbook photo of the missing woman.
They have the same gapped teeth and pointed nose, the same prominent chin and underbite, the same two moles on the front of the neck. The missing woman had blonde hair and would have been about the right age.
She also had one son, who was an infant when she disappeared.
The son is now in an Alabama prison. He and a sister of the missing woman both have given DNA samples, but the results haven’t come back yet.
“We’re crossing our fingers,” said Nelson, the investigator from the Spokane County Medical Examiner’s Office.
But this could be another false alarm.
“Sometimes a ‘no’ is just as good as a ‘yes’ because that means we can move on and keep looking,” Nelson said.
‘A lot of sad families’
There are 25 active investigations involving unidentified remains in Spokane County. Many of them were pulled from the river. The oldest cases date back to 1961.
It’s Nelson’s job to find names for the dead – and notify any living relatives.
“I don’t know what else would be as fulfilling,” she said. “There’s a lot of sad families out there waiting to hear this news.”
One case is especially personal for Nelson.
Before becoming a forensic investigator, she was an emergency medical technician and volunteer diver for the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office. In June 2007, she helped recover a man’s body from the river just east of the Washington Street Bridge.
The man was badly decomposed, making fingerprints unobtainable. There was only one tooth left in his mouth. There were no tattoos on the remnants of his skin. He had multiple facial fractures and two titanium plates on his jaw from a previous surgery.
Forensic experts think he was about 40 years old, 5 feet 3 inches to 5 feet 6 inches tall, and between 130 to 180 pounds. He appears to be of mixed race.
Koppelman drew a portrait of the man. It was uploaded into NamUs, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, along with thousands of other cases.
“Our unidentified and missing people are a huge, huge problem that no one talks about,” Nelson said.
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