DNA test, police work end mother’s quest for son

EVERETT — She called him Mike.

Dr. Laura Fulginiti, a forensic anthropologist, inherited the skeletal remains some 20 years ago when she joined the Maricopa County Medical Examiner’s Office in Arizona.

Fulginiti knew the man had been stabbed to death. His bones told her that story. The cops told her a drug dealer murdered him in early September 1986. He was discarded in the desert, abandoned for two years before a hiker came across the scattered bones.

She didn’t know his name; only that the people who tried to hide his death thought he was Mike.

There was something about the case. Maybe it was because her older brother was around the same age when he died. Maybe it was because she couldn’t imagine not getting the chance to say goodbye.

For two decades, she held out hope that someone was looking for the man.

“Mike, you got anything you want to tell me?” the doctor would sometimes ask the bones, trying to coax clues from the dead.

Always in her mind, she pictured a mother in a dark room, wringing her hands, waiting for her son to come home.

“He’s been in my life for 20 years,” Fulginiti said. “Now, I finally know that he was loved and missed all these years.”

Her Mike was Todd Mertes, 25. He grew up in Marysville. He taught his little sister how to ride a dirt bike in the woods around their rural Snohomish County home. As a boy, he loved to sit in his mom’s lap. He was a fearless prankster, a “little stinker,” said his mother, Joni Martin, smiling at the memories of her oldest child.

Mertes disappeared 25 years ago.

Now, his family knows what took him out of their lives.

“I never imagined that I would ever know what happened to him, or have the opportunity to understand what happened,” Toinette Benson said of her brother’s death.

The answers came from compassionate scientists and patient detectives working separate cases. They pieced them together with technology, persistence and perhaps a dose of luck.

In 2008, Arizona authorities extracted DNA from the slain man’s shin bone. The tibia yielded a unique genetic profile that could be compared against others. The profile recently was uploaded into the nation’s Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS.

Immediately there was a match.

That’s where the mystery travels to Snohomish County.

In 2010, sheriff’s cold case detective Jim Scharf collected DNA samples from the Marysville man’s parents and sister.

His mom’s fiance, a self-proclaimed gabber, was at the sheriff’s office on unrelated business. He asked the right cop about a missing person.

“Whatever happened to the Todd Mertes case?”

The name didn’t ring a bell with Scharf.

“I’m the guy who should know about it, and I can’t find anything in the system,” the cold case detective said.

Martin, 71, went to the sheriff’s office years ago, but remembered being told it was too soon to report her son missing. Several years later, she spoke with an Everett police detective about the disappearance. She didn’t know to ask for a case number or request a copy of a report. The paper trail would have confirmed that police computers listed Mertes as missing.

Scharf asked Martin to come into the office to file a report. He collected saliva swabs from the family to compare DNA profiles against those in the national database.

Scharf has searched for the identities of several John Does and Jane Does in his 20-plus years as a detective. He knows that people can fall through the cracks. Missing persons reports get kicked out of the national database. Families don’t know to provide DNA samples.

Last month, scientists at the Center for Human Identification at the University of North Texas matched DNA from the Arizona leg bone with the DNA gathered in Snohomish County.

Scharf broke the news to Martin a few weeks ago.

“I know the whole story. I’m not guessing anymore,” the Marysville mom said. “It’s hard. You hold out hope even though you believe something happened to him.”

Martin and her daughter already suspected Mertes had been murdered.

A week or two before he was stabbed, he called his sister, telling her he’d run into some trouble with some dangerous people in the drug business. He needed to hide, but first he wanted to see her and his nephew. He talked of meeting up at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Mertes never called back.

“I knew in my heart of hearts that my brother was not returning. He would have called me,” Benson said.

The family recently learned that Mertes was killed during an argument with an acquaintance in the Phoenix area. The suspect, Michael Alan Root, died in 2008 in a Michigan prison while serving life for killing an elderly couple a year after he likely stabbed Mertes.

The family learned that detectives sought justice for the unnamed man for years.

Maricopa County sheriff’s detectives received a tip in 1987 about the homicide. The woman told investigators that a friend’s husband murdered a man during an argument in 1986. The victim, who went by Mike, had been staying with the couple. The informant said Root repeatedly stabbed the man, Phoenix police detective Stuart Somershoe said.

Root and his wife put the man in a sleeping bag and drove him out to the desert. There they lit the sleeping bag on fire.

At the time, sheriff’s detectives searched the vacant rental house. They found blood and evidence corroborating the tipster’s story. They combed the desert for the victim but came up empty.

By then, Root had moved back to his home state, where he killed the parents of a University of Notre Dame official.

In February 1988, a man who worked at the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station came across a human jaw during one of his daily desert nature walks. Investigators scoured the area, locating the rest of the remains.

“They put two and two together and assume it’s connected to the tip they received in 1987 about the homicide,” Somershoe said.

Phoenix investigators flew out to Michigan to talk to Root. He refused to answer their questions. Detectives turned their investigation over to Arizona prosecutors, but no charges were filed. Root was serving life and the bones still weren’t identified.

Police released a drawing of Mike and pictures of a facial reconstruction, hoping for tips.

“The case hit a wall,” Somershoe said.

Experts estimate about 110,000 people are considered missing in the U.S. The unidentified remains of about 60,000 people are buried in unmarked graves or stored in boxes in medical examiners’ offices across the country. Physical descriptions for only about 15 percent of those remains have been entered into the FBI’s National Crime Information Center.

In Washington state, the remains of more than 100 people are waiting to be identified.

There have been federal efforts to identify the unnamed. In 2009, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs, was created as a central repository for information about missing people and unclaimed remains. Relatives of missing people, coroners and law enforcement can get access to the databases and enter information about cases.

The National Institute of Justice also provides grants to collect and analyze DNA samples from unidentified remains and families of the missing.

Snohomish County received a federal grant a couple of years ago to test evidence in cold cases. Some of the money was used to exhume unidentified remains for more advanced testing.

Fulginiti, the Arizona anthropologist, said her county received a similar grant to help identify more than 200 unnamed dead there. Mertes’ homicide was the first.

Fulginiti’s special interest in Mike’s identity led her to pore over reports, searching for overlooked clues. Any time a new detective was assigned cold cases, she pestered them about the desert bones.

Mike became a teaching tool for her anthropology students.

She wanted to believe that he hadn’t been thrown away. So, while she waited she treated him as someone’s child. She kept his skull on a homemade blue blanket. She talked to him.

“I had such a long-standing relationship with him,” Fulginiti said. “I always hoped a family was looking for him.”

She recently got to meet part of his family.

Mertes’ sister moved to the Phoenix area in 2002. Her brother was killed a few miles from where she lives now. For the past decade, his remains were just a short car ride away.

Benson and Fulginiti hugged and shared a good cry when they met in the medical examiner’s office.

“She’s an amazing woman. Her passion drove the success of this case,” Benson said of the forensic anthropologist.

She and her family also are grateful to Scharf, a detective carrying about 60 unsolved cases who didn’t ignore one man’s off-the-cuff question.

“He is a blessing. If it wasn’t for him, this never would have happened,” Martin said.

A mother can grieve for her son, say goodbye.

There is some relief, some peace, Benson said. There also is sadness. What if her brother had more time, another opportunity to find his passion? She can’t help but remember the joy on his face as he raced through the woods on his motorcycle.

She’ll bring her brother home this summer. He’ll be buried next to family.

He was Todd Mertes.

He was not forgotten.

Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463; hefley@heraldnet.com.

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