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

Genetic genealogy helps identify man found dead in 1980 in Spokane

A man found dead in an apparent homicide more than four decades ago in Spokane was identified this year using genetic genealogy, police announced Friday.

In January 1980, three transients walking in a railroad tunnel at 700 E. Trent Ave. in Spokane discovered a dead man, identified in April as Donald Leroy Pearson, curled up with burn marks to his torso and significant head trauma, according to a Spokane Police Department news release.

Pearson’s death was ruled a homicide because of the injuries and smoke inhalation, police said. Pearson did not have identification, and a missing person report was never filed for someone fitting his profile.

He was described as a man between the ages of 35 and 45, 5-foot-6 and weighing 125 pounds. An autopsy was conducted, but no DNA samples were retained, which was not uncommon at that time, the release said. Fingerprints were collected, but they failed to produce an identification.

The man was buried as a John Doe in February 1980 at Fairmount Memorial Park.

Technology and forensic testing ability were virtually unrecognizable from the capabilities of today, police said. DNA was recognized as a scientific concept but wasn’t used to solve forensic cases for decades to come. Spokane police detectives gathered evidence, conducted interviews and followed up on leads, but ultimately, the case went cold.

In July 2022, the Spokane County Medical Examiner’s Office received a grant to help identify human remains using genetic genealogy. Since no DNA samples were retained from Pearson, his remains were exhumed in October to collect samples, police said. They were sent to a forensic lab, Othram Inc., which specializes in working with degraded specimens to obtain a DNA profile.

Othram then provided leads of potential relatives of the victim.

Detectives and an investigator from the medical examiner’s office located Pearson’s son, who provided DNA, in Missouri. In April, Othram confirmed the parent-child relationship and revealed the identity of the John Doe as Pearson, according to the release.

Investigators learned Pearson was 56 when he died. Pearson was born in Nebraska, and many of his known addresses were in the Midwest.

The police department and medical examiner’s office ask anyone who knew Pearson or the circumstances of his death to contact Crime Check at (509) 456-2233. The cold case remains open and there are few leads.

In February, genetic genealogy was also used to identify a woman whose body was pulled from the Spokane River in 1984. Dubbed “Millie” for decades, the woman was identified as Ruth Belle Waymire, police said. Spokane police cold case detectives continue to seek leads in her death.