Wind whipped through Fairmount Memorial Park on a rainy April afternoon as two black-clad figures looked for a grave.
It took 20 minutes, several looks at a map and a phone call to a groundskeeper before Spokane Police Sgt. Zac Storment and Death Investigator Nicole Hamada stood over a patch of grass, no marking in sight, where Ruth Belle Waymire was laid to rest.
For more than 40 years, no one knew who the woman in the unmarked grave was.
In March, her identity was uncovered through genetic genealogy.
Never seen again
Things had been fairly normal for the Waymire sisters – Ruth and Deborah – during their early childhood. Their parents were married, and their mom stayed at home while dad worked as a furnace operator.
When Ruth was a teenager and Deborah was in grade school, their parents divorced.
The girls lived with their mom and their father provided for them, Deborah recalled, until he got remarried. During that time, their mother was diagnosed with cancer and spent a lot of time in the hospital.
Despite their tumultuous home life, Deborah said she always knew she could count on her sister to stick up for her.
“We were real close, me and my sister,” she said.
One time, Deborah was getting bullied on the school bus, to the point that a classmate hit her over the head with some books. Ruth stepped in and put the bully in her place. Deborah had no problems with her after that.
When their mother died in 1981, Ruth and Deborah were largely on their own.
Both dropped out of school. Ruth got married as a teenager, but the relationship soured after a couple of months, Deborah said.
Ruth then started bringing a dark-haired boy around, Deborah said. They quickly married and decided to move, despite Deborah’s concerns that Ruth really didn’t know her new husband all that well. But Ruth was confident that she could take care of herself.
“I never saw her again,” Deborah said.
‘No one deserves not to have a name’
Spokane County Medical Examiner Veena Singh is hopeful that the latest technological advance, genetic genealogy, could finally be the key to identifying more remains.
“The first step to investigating anyone’s death is figuring out who they are,” Singh said.
The medical examiner’s office has about 30 unidentified sets of remains dating back as far as the 1960s. Their identities have eluded investigators for decades, despite numerous advances in technology, including the creation of a national database called CODIS that consists of DNA taken from people charged or convicted of crimes.
The medical examiner’s office used nearly $350,000 of American Rescue Plan funds intended for public safety measures to send the specimens out for analysis that would allow them to use genealogy to identify people. They’ve sent about half their cases to Othram, a lab that does both the specific DNA analysis and genealogy that encompass genetic genealogy.
Hamada, who started as a death investigator at the medical examiner’s office in 2021, was always interested in working on cases of unidentified remains.
One of the first things she did when settling in to her new office was hang up digital renderings of unidentified people.
“(Ruth’s) re-creation photo went up in my office as a reminder that no one deserves not to have a name,” Hamada said. “So this case stuck with me from the very beginning.”
When the grant funds came through, Hamada began learning how to do genealogy herself, building family trees in hopes of stretching the funds further by only having to pay for the DNA analysis in the future.
She had become interested in the technology when she interned in Snohomish County in 2019 and attended the trial of William Earl Talbot II, who killed Tanya Van Cuylenborg and Jay Cook in 1987. Talbot’s conviction was the first using genetic genealogy.
Once in Spokane, the Ruth Waymire case quickly drew Hamada’s attention.
“I have always wondered how a young female falls off the radar and no one seems to know anything about her,” Hamada said.
The results from Othram turned up two names: Ruth and Deborah Waymire. But they weren’t sure they had the right family lineage because the women’s father had been remarried and possibly had other children.
After months of making family trees and researching, Hamada discovered the women’s father didn’t have other children. They began looking for Deborah, but she was hard to find, with marriages and name changes.
Investigators finally located her in Oklahoma. Deborah remembers officers showing up to her door and asking her to take a DNA test.
She had always wondered about her sister and what happened to her, but never really knew how to find her, Deborah said.
The DNA came back as a match, giving the medical examiner’s office their first identification through genetic genealogy.
When Storment called to tell Deborah they had identified her sister and she was dead, it unleashed a flurry of grief.
“Oh my God, I was devastated,” Deborah said. “It was like a sledgehammer hitting me in the chest.”
Things only got worse when Storment detailed how Ruth died.
Two fisherman discovered a nude, decapitated body on the south shore of the Spokane River on June 20, 1984. The woman didn’t match the description of any known missing people at the time.
Then in April 1998, a skull was found in a vacant lot at Seventh Avenue and Sherman Street. Tips and leads poured in after the discovery, but none led to an identification.
A few years later, the skull and torso were matched through then-cutting-edge DNA technology.
But little progress was made in discovering Ruth’s identity until last year with genetic genealogy.
Finding out her sister’s death was so violent, and that she was never even reported missing, devastated Deborah.
“Just threw in the river like trash,” Deborah said angrily.
Deborah, now 59, had her own struggles in the years after her sister left. As a teenager, she moved around central Washington, working wherever she could.
She settled in Wenatchee and married. She had two children before divorcing her husband.
Deborah later moved to Oklahoma, where she lives on disability. She is estranged from her sons.
After decades of wondering what happened to her sister, Deborah wants closure: “I want to know who did this to my sister.”
When investigators announced they had identified Ruth, it came with a plea for tips.
Anyone who knew her, perhaps even in passing at school, might be able to tell Storment a bit about her personality.
At the time of her death, Ruth was married to Trampas D.L. Vaughn, who died near Sacramento, California, in 2017.
Storment hoped for tips about Vaughn or the couple’s marriage. Ruth had given birth a year or two before to her death, but it’s unclear what happened to the baby.
Investigators hoped tips from the public would help fill in the gaps, but hardly anyone called.
So Hamada and Storment did the one thing they could to give Deborah a small bit of that closure she so desired: They visited Ruth’s grave.
There wasn’t much there, just yellow grass dotted with pine cones. Storment knelt to drive a green plastic vase into the ground.
He choked up, realizing the vase and vibrant flowers served as the only marker for Ruth.
“This case will stick with me forever because it’s just shocking to the core,” Storment said. “What happened to her is beyond belief. Spokane is a great place to live, and for things like this to happen and to go unanswered are shocking and unacceptable.”