Detective Jim Scharf (left) of the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office and David Mittelman, CEO of Othram Inc., announce the identification of remains for two cold murder cases Thursday at the Snohomish County Courthouse in Everett. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Detective Jim Scharf (left) of the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office and David Mittelman, CEO of Othram Inc., announce the identification of remains for two cold murder cases Thursday at the Snohomish County Courthouse in Everett. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Forensic genealogy cracks Snohomish County cold cases from 1977, 1981

Alice Williams’ skull was found in woods near Skykomish. Blaine Has Tricks’ remains were crushed in a Tulalip landfill.

EVERETT — Through advances in DNA technology, authorities identified a North Dakota man and a Seattle medical worker as the victims in two Snohomish County cold cases dating to 1977 and 1981.

Both cases were cracked with the aid of forensic genealogy, a technique where DNA evidence is entered into a public ancestry database to find a suspect, or as in these cases, to identify long-nameless human remains.

The Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office, an agency that has pioneered genealogy as a forensic tool, announced the breakthroughs Thursday at a press conference. The sheriff’s cold case team inherited about a dozen cases of nameless remains. They’ve pared the list to four — and in all of those, they have DNA profiles to work with.

For years, these newly identified remains had been known only as the Beckler River Jane Doe and the Tulalip Landfill John Doe.

Alice Williams

A U.S. Forest Service crew found the woman’s skull on Oct. 10, 2009, in a steep ravine in the woods off Beckler Road north of Skykomish. No other parts of the skeleton were ever recovered, nor was any jewelry or clothing.

On Thursday, the sheriff’s office restored her name. She was Alice Lou Williams, a Seattle medical secretary who went missing under suspicious circumstances on July 19, 1981, at the age of 53.

Alice Williams had been staying at a cabin near Lake Loma northwest of Marysville with her husband Frank “Bill” Williams. Over the years, detectives saw the husband as the main suspect, but all of the evidence was circumstantial.

She had been off booze for about 17 months. Her husband hadn’t stopped drinking.

“She was talking about getting a divorce,” said Snohomish County sheriff’s detective Jim Scharf, “and he didn’t want to give up everything he’d worked for in his whole life. So he was against a divorce.”

In the 1980s, HBO produced a brief documentary featuring four missing persons cases. One of them was Alice Williams.

On the show, Bill Williams recounted that July day down to the tiniest details. For breakfast, he cut up cantaloupe for himself and his wife. He left to pick up his in-laws in Seattle. And when he came back, the dining table had been set with dishes and silverware. The roast was warm in the Crockpot. His wife’s rings and purse were still in the cabin. But Alice Williams was gone.

Bill Williams claimed he had a hunch that she didn’t run off on her own, or with another man.

“Since I was apparently the last person to see her, quite logically I would be the prime suspect,” the husband told the camera.

Bill Williams declined to take a polygraph test, hired an attorney and stopped cooperating with police, Scharf said.

The husband died in 2003.

Over 28 years passed between the last time Alice Williams was seen alive and the discovery of the unidentified skull.

Alice Williams, a Seattle medical secretary, went missing under suspicious circumstances in 1981. A skull found in the woods north of Skykomish in 2009 has been identified as hers. (Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office)

Alice Williams, a Seattle medical secretary, went missing under suspicious circumstances in 1981. A skull found in the woods north of Skykomish in 2009 has been identified as hers. (Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office)

An early forensic examination of the cranium suggested the woman suffered obvious trauma to her skull, and that she was likely over 40 years old — but almost no other physical attributes could be determined. The remains were incomplete and weathered. She could have been dead for a year. Or she could have been dead for decades.

In early 2010, a piece of bone was delivered to the FBI to upload its DNA into the national database CODIS. There were no matches, but that profile was used to rule out other missing people.

Over the following years, private labs tried more DNA testing without success. The genetic material was either too small or contaminated.

Then in June 2021, investigators with the Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office sent a piece of the cranium to Othram Inc., a forensic lab in Texas with expertise in pulling DNA from “challenging skeletal remains.”

Almost a year later, after several tries, Othram extracted a DNA profile that could be uploaded into family ancestry websites — to build genealogical family trees with the hope of identifying the Beckler River Jane Doe.

Snohomish County death investigator Jane Jorgensen plugged the profile into the public database GEDmatch. Multiple relatives popped up. Jorgensen traced the family lines to Alice Allen, who married a man with the last name Williams in 1946. Further DNA testing of the couple’s grown children confirmed the skull came from Alice.

“Some of these cases seem intractable, they seem impossible,” Othram CEO David Mittelman said Thursday. “They’re all possible.”

This month, Snohomish County Medical Examiner Dr. J. Matthew Lacy officially classified Alice Williams’ death as homicide.

According to the detective, surviving family could not think of any connection they had to the woods near Beckler River.

Dona Roth, the couple’s daughter, thanked investigators in a statement Thursday. She also noted the only person “who could supply any information to investigators was my father, who was the last person to see her.”

“Our family became broken over her disappearance and that wound has never healed,” Roth said. “In closing I would just like to thank my Mom for her love and devotion. Also for teaching hard work and dedication and for leading the way for my own family. She will always be remembered in our hearts.”

Her son and daughter-in-law, Ted and Cathy Williams, also released a statement grateful for the efforts.

“Maybe someday,” Ted Williams said, “we will all find out what happened to Mom.”

Blaine Has Tricks

A bulldozer driver working in the mud of a landfill found the compacted, crushed bones on Sept. 7, 1977, west of Marysville off Highway 529.

He was identified Thursday as Blaine Has Tricks, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe from Bismarck, North Dakota.

All of the garbage in the landfill, leased from the Tulalip Tribes, had come from large dumpsters from businesses in downtown Seattle. Sheriff’s detectives had long believed the Tulalip Landfill John Doe somehow ended up in a dumpster, and he could have been killed by accident.

In 1977, Dr. James Lipo performed an autopsy, finding “extensive post-mortem trauma due to the compaction during transport and bulldozing processes at the landfill.” The cause of death was undetermined, but the manner was classified as homicide. Dr. Lipo estimated he was a white man from 20 to 40 years old, 5-foot-8 to 6-foot, around 160 pounds, with long black hair.

Several missing people were ruled out through dental records.

On Sept. 20, 1977, the body was buried at the Marysville Cemetery, a common practice at the time for John Does. Now, the medical examiner’s office stores remains until they are identified.

The case was finally sent to the National Crime Information Center in 2009, amid a re-examination of unsolved cases by Scharf and his small team of volunteers. The detective obtained a warrant to exhume the grave in 2011.

Early in 2012, state forensic anthropologist Dr. Kathy Taylor revised the educated guesses of the original investigation. She believed the man could be Hispanic, white or Native American, from 30 to 60 years old, and anywhere from 5-foot-4 to 5-foot-10. Figuring out the exact cause of death would be difficult due to the many broken bones. A yearslong effort to rebuild the skull ended with the conclusion that it was “not suitable for a facial reconstruction.”

Investigators sent bones to labs to extract DNA, and in 2019, a genetic profile was uploaded to CODIS. There were no matches.

Detective Jim Scharf of the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office announces the identification of remains for two cold murder cases Thursday in the Snohomish County Courthouse in Everett. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Detective Jim Scharf of the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office announces the identification of remains for two cold murder cases Thursday in the Snohomish County Courthouse in Everett. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

So the sheriff’s office and medical examiner’s office turned to Othram again. Initial bone samples didn’t offer up enough good DNA. In 2021, however, Othram was able to extract a usable sample from a piece of the femur.

Analysis suggested the John Doe was predominantly Native American. Again, the medical examiner’s office uploaded the profile to GEDmatch. Jorgensen found a relative in the database: a great-niece.

So again, the death investigator built family trees with evocative surnames: Tomahawk, Pretends Eagle, Four — and Has Tricks.

Detectives learned Blaine Has Tricks and a brother had been hopping trains in the 1970s. After that, police found he lived in Spokane, as evidenced by minor brushes with the law for petty crimes. His brother came home to North Dakota, but he never heard from Blaine Has Tricks again, and he was not reported missing.

The paper trail of his whereabouts ended around February 1977. The body was found months later. It was unclear how he ended up west of the Cascade Range. At the time he went missing, he would have been about 38 years old.

A special agent with the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs rounded up DNA samples from Blaine’s relatives. Genetic testing of two nephews confirmed the identity of the deceased, born May 21, 1939.

The Snohomish County medical examiner formally identified the decedent as Blaine Has Tricks in February.

His remains have since been returned to family, for burial at St. James Catholic Cemetery in Shield, North Dakota.

Verle Red Tomahawk, a nephew, said in a statement to the sheriff’s office that “others would have given up a long time ago, but you didn’t.”

“The last members of Blaine’s family are thankful that he was identified and his remains are being sent home to where he belongs,” the nephew said.

Tips?

Funding for DNA analysis in both cases was provided by audiochuck, a podcasting company that produces true crime shows, like Crime Junkie, Anatomy of a Murder and Solvable.

Scharf, the lead detective on both cases, plans to retire from the sheriff’s office at the end of the month. He said he will continue to volunteer on the sheriff’s cold case team, because forensic genealogy has injected new hope into cases that were once thought to be unsolvable. In some cases, he said, detectives suspected a serial killer could have been behind a killing, only to find they were on the wrong track.

“We’re learning that these are one-time murderers, even though they’re real horrific murders,” Scharf said. “They committed one murder and never committed another crime, never got arrested, never got their DNA taken to be put into CODIS — and (the case) never would have been solved, if we didn’t have this genetic genealogy.”

Detectives still have many unanswered questions in the two cases.

Tips can be directed to the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office at 425-388-3845.

Caleb Hutton: 425-339-3454; chutton@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @snocaleb.

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