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Headless torso discovered in Idaho cave identified as 1916 murder suspect

This undated composite sketch provided by Anthony Redgrave, courtesy of Lee Bingham Redgrave, shows Joseph Henry Loveless. A man whose headless torso was found in a remote Idaho cave 40 years ago has finally been identified as Loveless, an outlaw who killed his wife with an ax and was last seen after escaping from jail in 1916. Clark County Sheriff Bart May said Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2019, that the cold case, which his department has been working on periodically since 1979, will remain open because investigators don't yet know who killed Loveless. Still, they were able to notify one of Loveless' surviving relatives, an 87-year-old grandson, of his fate. (AP)
This undated composite sketch provided by Anthony Redgrave, courtesy of Lee Bingham Redgrave, shows Joseph Henry Loveless. A man whose headless torso was found in a remote Idaho cave 40 years ago has finally been identified as Loveless, an outlaw who killed his wife with an ax and was last seen after escaping from jail in 1916. Clark County Sheriff Bart May said Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2019, that the cold case, which his department has been working on periodically since 1979, will remain open because investigators don't yet know who killed Loveless. Still, they were able to notify one of Loveless' surviving relatives, an 87-year-old grandson, of his fate. (AP)
By Gillian Brockell The Washington Post

The story in the June 1916 Idaho newspaper was alarming: A man suspected of brutally murdering his wife “escaped on May 18 from custody and has not been caught.”

He was never seen again.

Now, authorities say that dismembered remains found in a remote cave 40 years ago have been identified as those of the suspected murderer - an apparent victim of frontier justice.

He went by a variety of names, Charles Smith, Walter Cairns, but his real name was Joseph Henry Loveless.

Loveless was born in 1870 to some of the first members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to settle in Utah. But he apparently preferred the “wild” part of the West, becoming a notorious counterfeiter and bootlegger in the dry counties of Idaho, according to the Associated Press. He was average in height and build, and his only “peculiarity of the face is the absence of eyebrows,” local newspapers said at the time.

Loveless was arrested regularly but never stayed in jail for long. He carried a blade hidden in his shoe, which he used more than once to saw through jail bars and escape.

By 1916, he and his second wife Agnes - a first wife had obtained a rare divorce - were living in a tent on the edge of Dubois, Idaho, where he had “doing odd jobs around the railroad yards.”

On the morning of May 5, Agnes’ body was found next to the tent, her head nearly severed and “hacked to pieces with an axe,” according to newspaper accounts.

Loveless fled but was caught in nearby St. Anthony some time before Agnes’s funeral. He was using the name Walter Cairns, but according to news articles found by investigators, one of his children identified him as his dad, Joseph Henry Loveless. That child also predicted his dad would soon escape. He did.

Fast forward to Aug. 26, 1979, when a family searching for arrowheads inside a cave about 100 miles from St. Anthony made a gruesome discovery: the torso of a man wrapped in burlap and buried in a shallow grave.

The Clark County Sheriff’s Office opened a homicide investigation, but at the time, the technology didn’t exist to identify the remains via DNA, nor even to determine how long they had been buried there.

Twelve years later, in 1991, a girl exploring the same cave found a hand. Investigators launched an excavation and found an arm and two legs wrapped in the same burlap material as the torso. The FBI, the Smithsonian Institution and researchers at Idaho State University have tried to help over the years, but the best they could determine was that the remains belonged to a white man with reddish-brown hair who had been about 40 years old at the time of his death.

Then in 2019, the sheriff’s office asked for help from the DNA Doe Project, a nonprofit that uses the latest DNA technology to identify remains.

Within four months, the mystery was solved. The DNA Doe Project obtained a detailed DNA sequence from a lab, built a genealogical tree, and located a living grandson of Loveless’s whose DNA matched perfectly.

“It’s blown everyone’s minds,” forensic genealogist Lee Bingham Redgrave said at a news conference on Tuesday. “The really cool thing, though, is that his ‘wanted’ poster from his last escape is described as wearing the same clothing that he was found in, so that leads us to put his death date at likely 1916.”

The grandson, now 87, had no idea about his grandfather’s criminal past. The homicide investigation remains open. Clark County Sheriff Bart May has no suspects, but he thinks he knows the motive.

“Back in 1916, it was the wild West up here and most likely the locals took care of the problem,” he told CNN.

Loveless’s head, the same body part of Agnes’ that he allegedly “hacked to pieces,” has never been found.

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