Decades-old mystery solved

Becky Vargo • Feb 4, 2017 at 7:00 AM

Old case files in basement storage combined with new technology and renewed efforts in a John Doe case have resulted in the identification of a man with ties to Grand Haven who was killed by a train near Cleveland, Ohio, in 1980.

Lt. Joe Boyle of the Grand Haven Department of Public Safety said the former Grand Haven family actually never knew the man was deceased. He said they had lost touch with him prior to his death.

“It’s a bittersweet feeling,” Boyle said of the case being resolved. “But, in law enforcement, that makes us feel good” to help a family have closure.

James Francis Williams was believed to be in his late 20s at the time of his death on Nov. 14, 1980, according to a press release from the Medical Examiner’s Office in Cuyahoga County, Ohio. But officials did not know that at the time of his death. They did not have a name for him until last month.

According to Grand Haven police records, Williams was 17 when he was arrested in 1961 for taking someone’s car without permission, Boyle said. That would put him at about 36 at the time of his death. He would be about 73 if he was alive today.

The 1961 arrest was the first known police interaction with the Native American teen, Boyle said. He was fingerprinted at the time and a police report was made. The report was filed away, eventually making its way to basement storage where it would eventually be scheduled for disposal.

Boyle said if the department still didn’t have those old records, they wouldn’t have had family names or Williams’ Social Security number — all of which were in his file.

Boyle did not know when Williams’ fingerprints were entered into the database, where it is accessible by a national search.

The case was filed away and forgotten until Boyle received a call from the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner’s Office last month. That office routinely follows up on old cases with the hope they may discover new information that can be used with today’s state-of-the-art technology, according to Medical Examiner Dr. Thomas Gilson. 

Gilson’s office pulled the Williams file and called the Berea (Ohio) Police Department to see if they had the original police report of the incident — and with that, the dead man’s fingerprints.

Boyle said Berea police initially were not able to find the report, but came up with it after some checking. As a result, the county’s fingerprint lab entered the prints into a national database and came up with a hit from Grand Haven.

From there, Boyle checked the old index files, which are alphabetized by name, and found Williams. He was able to locate the old police report from there.

Between the index card and the police report, Boyle was able to determine that Williams was Native American and originally from Newberry, in the Upper Peninsula. He also found names of siblings on the report.

Boyle said he contacted the Sault Tribe Law Enforcement Department, who found a phone number for a brother.

It turned out that the brother was a truck driver in California, Boyle said. Every time he came to Michigan, he tried to find his brother, but never knew what had happened to him.

Boyle connected the brother with the Ohio medical examiner’s office, who then made the official notification.

Boyle said he believes that Williams’ parents are also dead. He did not share any other family names.

Williams was buried as “John Doe” in a Cleveland cemetery, according to WKYC-TV in Cleveland.

“It is gratifying to be able to provide closure to any family who loses a loved one,” Gilson said. “This particular case is especially so because of the long time involved before an identification was made. I am indebted to the wonderful staff in the county DNA and fingerprint laboratories, as well as our partners in law enforcement. Families never forget their loss, and it is our mission to aid them in difficult times.”


Recommended for You

    Grand Haven Tribune Videos