Southeast Missouri State University students embarked on an educational journey in 2020 that helped solve a decades-old cold case and give a family closure they had been looking for since 1977.
The University’s Department of History and Anthropology have had the unique opportunity in the past to help law enforcement with identifying remains. The most recent case students assisted on turned out to be one they would remember.
In 2020, the Cape County Sherriff’s Office turned over a set of bones to the department. Previous DNA testing on the bones had failed, which meant that this particular victim remained unidentified. The bones were located decades before by a mushroom hunter. By a bit of luck, the hunter found the entire skeleton throughout the 1980s.
“It’s kind of crazy because a mushroom hunter found the postcranial skeleton, basically the entire skeleton apart from the head, in 1981. Then, fast forward seven years to 1988, the same mushroom hunter went back looking for mushrooms again and found the skull,” said Dr. Jennifer Bengtson, associate professor with the University’s Department of History and Anthropology.
Finding the skull in 1988 turned out to be a key for the students studying the set of bones. With the skull in hand, Dr. Bengtson and the anthropology students went to work to give an identity to the John Doe.
“We began by creating a basic biological profile,” said Bengtson. “Which are things like when they died, their sex, height, and what we think their ancestry may be like.”
The group conducted radiocarbon testing, which allowed them to predict where the person was born with a high degree of certainty. They also did isotope testing, which helped identify possible regions that the person had lived based off certain environmental elements.
“The water in certain areas, for example, will contain certain elements of oxygen that will be incorporated into your bones and teeth,” said Bengtson.
These preliminary tests helped the students narrow down a possible profile for the unidentified victim. They speculated that the person was a male born in the 1950s, possibly in Northeast Arkansas. They also found that he had been shot in the head and the ribs determined by the damage to the skeleton.
After that, they turned to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NAMUS) to compare their tentative profile to those listed in the system. With the data they had, they could not find anyone with matching circumstances to their victim.
That is until Amanda Milbrandt stepped in. Milbrandt is a Southeast alumna who graduated last year with her master’s degree in forensic chemistry. As a part of her thesis, she had refined a nondestructive method of DNA analysis that could predict whether bones could be used for DNA extraction. If DNA could be extracted from the bones, the group could take huge steps toward finding a name for their victim.
“There is a bone on either side of the head called the petrous temporal bone that encompasses and protects all of the structures of the inner ear,” said Bengtson. “We already knew from previously published research that this particular bone was known for retaining DNA, but Amanda’s test confirmed that the sample should yield a positive DNA result.”
The DNA Dilemma
With the positive result from Milbrandt’s testing, the group took another step forward. However, they were still at a crossroads. Only one of the two temporal bones had been located with the skeleton. If the bone was sent off to be tested, it would be destroyed in the process and prevent any future testing. Dr. Bengtson and the anthropology students turned to the Cape Girardeau County Sherriff’s Office with the question.
“I told the Sheriff’s office that I believe this is our last, best hope,” said Bengtson. “I think it will be successful, but I can’t promise that it will be. And once the bone is gone, it’s gone forever.”
Ultimately, the Sherriff’s Office made the call. After decades of remaining unidentified, they decided the risk was worth the possibility of finding out who the victim was.
The bone was sent to Othram, an advanced forensic sequencing lab in Woodlands, Texas. Othram analyzed the bone and a couple of months reached back out: they had DNA.
“I double checked like a million times,” said Bengtson. “I had sent Othram samples from other cases and the case numbers all look similar and didn’t want to get excited.”
Bengtson confirmed that the DNA sample was in fact from the cold case they were working on with the Cape County Sherriff’s Office. From there, the sample was uploaded into GEDmatch. When DNA is extracted, it’s sequenced and read for certain markers that associate the profile with potential relatives. With the cold case DNA now sequenced, it could be uploaded into GEDmatch to be compared to people across the globe. A system like this compares to other programs, such as 23AndMe, where people have submitted their own DNA.
“The closeness or distance of a relationship is measured in a unit called centimorgans” said Bengtson. “We are usually happy if we get DNA from an unknown person, put it into the GEDmatch database, and get a DNA match of 100-200 centimorgans because we’re like okay, that’s a second or third cousin. From there, we can reverse engineer the family tree of those matches and hopefully can find a missing person or person who is unaccounted for that could be a match.”
The results were better than a third cousin.
“When we put the DNA into GEDmatch we received a sibling level match,” said Bengtson. “And from there the story began to unfold.”
Cape Girardeau County Sheriff ’s Office immediately went to work tracking down who they believed to be the sibling of their victim. They found the sibling in Texas and were finally able to figure out exactly what had taken place decades ago.
The remains belonged to a man by the name of Everette Guy Travis.
Travis lived in Blytheville, AR in 1977. Around town, he was well-known for his kindness and as one who wasn’t afraid of a conversation with a stranger. In fact, his last known movement in Arkansas was picking up a hitchhiker on a summer morning.
“He was known as a good Samaritan, someone who would often pick up hitchhikers and talk to them about Jesus,” said Bengtson. “Witnesses stated they saw someone get into his car the morning on June 16, 1977, and he was never seen again.”
Not long after that day in June, Kenneth Deering showed up in Sikeston, Missouri attempting to sell a used car. Someone looking at the car became suspicious and talked to police. Once they looked into Deering, they found that the car was actually registered to Everette Guy Travis and that Deering was in possession of Travis’s belongings and a handgun.
Eventually, Deering was convicted of the murder of Travis and sentenced to life in prison. Deering died in 2012.
After identifying the remains, Cape County Sherriff’s Office was able to return Travis’s remains to his brother, Jim Travis, on October 17, 2022. Jim Travis took the remains to the grave that had been lying empty for nearly five decades with Everette Guy Travis’s name on it.
“There’s different stages of grief,” Bengtson said when speaking of what Jim Travis had told her regarding his brother’s remains being found. “And the stage I’m in right now is joy because I’m finally reunited with my brother. I know where his remains are now, and I can take care of him. I can bring him home.”
Closing the Case
Bengtson and her students navigated a difficult identification process with Travis’s cold case. From receiving an unidentified skeleton in 2020 to helping the family with closure two years later, it was an unforgettable experience.
“Not every story ends like this because sometimes you work on a case and the family never considered them being dead, just missing,” said Bengtson. “But this one is as close to a happy ending as you can get with something like this.”
Dr. Bengtson hopes cases like this continue in Southeast’s Department of History and Anthropology. Students learn invaluable skills throughout the process and it helps shed light on a large issue across the United States. There are estimates that suggest as many as 40,000 sets of remains are still unidentified.
She thinks that if students can help put a dent in this number, at least in the state of Missouri, it’s invaluable hands on experience for their future careers, but also something they personally won’t ever forget.
“I think we owe it to those people as a society to get them their names back,” said Bengtson. “Even if they no longer have any family looking for them, I think everybody has a right to their name and their identity."
Get Your Degree in Anthropology
Solve mysteries. Examine cultures. Study behavior and histories.
Anthropology is the study of humanity, past and present. It’s a wide field encompassing cultures, languages, and human biology, among others. Anthropologists often work as researchers, but the work is not all research. Sometimes anthropologists use their skills to impact the world in other ways.
Forensic anthropologists are specialists within the field of anthropology. These experts work to identify deceased people even if their bones have started to decay. SEMO’s Forensic Anthropology program teaches these same skills. Led by Dr. Jennifer Bengtson, this program imparts lessons to show new ways to look at not only death, but life as well.
Forensic anthropologists determine a lot about a person based only on their remains. It’s a skill that requires a lot of knowledge and experience to do well.
But what about students of forensic anthropology? How do they learn?
Professors use replicas of bones to teach future forensic anthropologists. The replicas are effective, but do not always capture the full scope of the work. Dr. Bengtson admits there is no substitute for real human remains. If there is a way to use real remains, could those remains fulfill a greater purpose outside of education?
The Forensic Anthropology Cold Case Team has already answered that exact question. A massive backlog of cold cases exists, so Dr. Bengtson and her students decided to help. Under supervision, students collaborate with law enforcement and reopen cold cases. So far, four cases have been solved, with many others in-progress. While the work is challenging for the team, they show no signs of slowing down.