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DNA technology solves 41-year-old mystery

by CAROLINE LOBSINGER
Hagadone News Network | April 2, 2023 1:09 AM

Mildred Hubertz was 59 when she went missing in 1968 from St. Ignatius, Mont., a small town 40 miles from Missoula.

In November 1982, hunters near Newport, Wash. — just across the North Idaho border and an almost four-hour drive from St. Ignatius — found a partial human skull in a remote wooded area north of the small Pend Oreille County community.

Friday, Pend Oreille County officials announced the skull was Mildred's, a discovery they said was made possible through investigative genealogy.

The remains were reported to have been examined by multiple agencies over the years, but the identity could not be determined, sheriff's officials said.

"In the years that followed, the case grew cold and, due to a far less extensive records-keeping process by the sheriff's office and the coroner's office at the time, it is unclear the extent of the work that investigators may have done," they said.

When investigators could not identify the remains, the skull was placed in a box and stored away. That's where former Undersheriff Mike Cress discovered it in 1999 and began looking into its origins.

In March 2017, Pend Oreille County officials sent the skull to the Washington State forensic anthropologist, hoping the King County Medical Examiner's office could obtain DNA samples that were unavailable during the initial exam in late 1982.

An examination determined the remains likely belonged to an adult female. However, the office noted that no dental and fingerprint records were available.

At the same time, they entered the information into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, a federal database detailing information on cases from across the country. Investigators can then compare their cases to known missing persons nationwide.

Pend Oreille County Sheriff's officials said part of the skull was sent for DNA extraction and uploaded into an FBI database that compares DNA profiles from missing persons to DNA from family reference samples and certain convicted offenders and arrestees.

"No matches were made, but this is not unusual for unidentified human remains," POSCO officials said.

Then in September, the Spokane Medical Examiner's Office invited Pend Oreille County officials to join them in working with Othram, Inc. to see if the forensic genealogy company could obtain an advanced DNA profile, suitable for investigative genetic genealogy. The following month, a section of the skull was sent to Othram for additional testing so that a DNA profile could be uploaded to genealogical databases.

After the company was able to get a DNA extract sufficient for testing in January, Othram scientists used forensic-grade genome sequencing to develop a DNA profile, which was then uploaded to GEDmatch and FamilyTreeDNA, where it was matched to a great-granddaughter through DNA reference testing.

They had, finally, a name: Mildred Christine (Allison) Hubertz. And on March 20, Pend Oreille County Coroner Dolly Hunt made it official.

Mildred had, at last, been found.

A search of Ancestry.com uncovered a photo matching that shared by the Pend Oreille County Sheriff's Office. A young Mildred was pictured as a senior at Wichita High School in Kansas. She was skilled in typewriting and enjoyed sports. A studious girl, she enjoyed physics, the gym and shows.

While they know where Mildred was found, Pend Oreille County officials said they don't know why she disappeared or how she ended up in a remote part of their county.

Information submitted to the database at the time noted that the partial skeletal remains — part of Mildred's skull — gave no identifying information. No clothing was found, nor was any jewelry or footwear discovered.

Newspaper reports at the time indicated the skull was found Nov. 28, 1982, in an "out of the way area" southwest of Dalkena, Wash., in southern Pend Oreille County and north of Newport. While in a wooded area, it was out in the open suggesting it may have been exposed by rainy weather, then-Sheriff Tony Bamonte said.

When it was examined by a Newport, Wash., doctor, Bamonte said it was found to have a fracture on the right front lobe — possibly caused by a wide, blunt object such as a baseball bat, or from a tree or a rock.

The skull was sent to the FBI crime lab to see if its analyst could determine the age and gender — or how long the skull had been where it was found. Making an identification even more challenging was the skull was missing the entire facial portion, the sheriff said.

While search crews were hampered by snow, Bamonte reported that metal detectorists found a pair of gold-fill opera glasses made in West Germany, a Revlon rouge compact — later estimated to be about 6 years old — and a small flashlight, complete with batteries still containing the 30-cent price stickers.

Later searches of the site turned up a silver pill box with the letters "UEX" engraved on the handle. Several crochet hooks and a large crochet needle, and manicure scissors also were found.

When FBI crime lab officials analyzed the skull, all they could determine was that it might belong to a woman 30 to 40 years of age and that it had been at the location where it was found for between a month and six years.

In May 1988, Bamonte told the Priest River Times that an anthropologist at a Washington State University lab in Pullman examined the human remains and determined the skull likely belonged to a Caucasian female of northern European descent.

Bamonte said he was told the woman was possibly 27-30 years old when she died and may have stood between 5-foot-5 and 5-foot-10. The lab estimated the woman had blond or dishwater-blond hair and could have been right-handed.

Evidence indicated the woman had been dead between one to five years and may have been stabbed in the face below the nose, Bamonte told the times.

Pend Oreille County officials said they were happy to identify Mildred and solve the 41-year-old mystery. They said they are grateful to the many groups and people who made that possible, including Othram, Inc., Pend Oreille County Sheriff’s Office and Sgt. Mitch Parnell, Spokane County Medical Examiner's Office and investigator Nicole Hamada, the King County Medical Examiner's Office and the late Dr. Katherine Taylor, forensic anthropologist; and Dr. Andrew Seidel, forensic anthropologist, NamUs.

They also thanked Mildred's relatives for sharing their DNA and family history.

"[It helped] solve this 41-year mystery," officials said in the press release.

Anyone with information about Mildred Hubertz's disappearance should contact Sgt. Mitch Parnell at the Pend Oreille County Sheriff's Office at 509-447-1911.

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(Photo via ANCESTRY.COM)

A yearbook photo of Mildred (Allison) Hubertz, pictured in the top row third from left, found on Ancestry.com shows her as a high school senior in Witchita, Kans., in 1927.

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A yearbook photo of Mildred (Allison) Hubertz found on Ancestry.com shows her as a high school senior in Witchita, Kans., in 1927.

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A story in the Dec. 2, 1982, edition of the Priest River Times details the discovery of a partial human skull in southern Pend Oreille County, Wash. DNA technology was used to identify the skull as that of Mildred (Allison) Hubertz — a discovery that was announced Friday.