Remains Found 36 Years Ago in Montana Are Identified

The authorities in Montana said this week that they had used a DNA sample to identify human remains that were found more than three deca...


The authorities in Montana said this week that they had used a DNA sample to identify human remains that were found more than three decades ago as those of a woman from Washington State whose family had last seen her in 1983.

For decades, the skeletal remains had been known only as Christy Crystal Creek, after the location in rural Missoula County where a bear hunter had found them in 1985. Detectives had few leads, and a forensic anthropologist’s flawed analysis of the woman’s teeth further confused the investigation.

Recently, however, investigators turned to her teeth again, extracting a genetic profile from one of her molars and uploading it to a genealogy database. That led the investigators to a cousin who connected them with the woman’s siblings.

The Missoula County Sheriff’s Office announced on Monday that Christy Crystal Creek was Janet Lee Lucas, of Spokane, Wash. The revelation solved a mystery that had bedeviled investigators for decades and that, more recently, was the subject of a true-crime podcast.

“Our focus has changed from ‘who is Christy Crystal Creek?’ to ‘what happened to Janet Lucas?’” Detective Capt. Dave Conway of the Sheriff’s Office said in a statement. “This is now a cold case homicide investigation and we need your help.”

Last month, Ms. Lucas’s son, her twin brother and one of her sisters visited the site near Crystal Creek where her remains were found.

“This is a huge peace that comes with finding out what happened,” said Josh Cheney, her son. Now 43, he said he last saw his mother when he was 5 and had spent his life wondering if and why she had abandoned him. “Even though she’s gone,” he said, “at least I know.”

While the identification answered some questions, others persist. Among them was whether Ms. Lucas was killed by Wayne Nance, whom the authorities suspect of being the serial killer known as the Missoula Mauler. Investigators have said they believe Mr. Nance, who died in 1986, killed at least four other people in Montana in the 1970s and ’80s.

On Sept. 9, 1985, a hunter tracking a bear spotted a skull near a creek just east of Missoula. Metal fillings in the teeth were a sign that these were human remains, and he called the Sheriff’s Office, according to a forensic case report.

Investigators did not find much that could help them identify her. “There were no clothes, no personal effects, nothing,” said Special Deputy Susan Lane of the Missoula County Sheriff’s Office. An investigation determined that she had died from two gunshots to the head.

Forensic anthropologists concluded that she was likely between 4-foot-8 and 5 feet tall, and 24 to 34 years old. After examining her teeth, they reasoned that she was likely of Asian descent. Detective Marta Timmins of the Missoula County Sheriff’s Office told the ABC Fox Montana podcast “Montana Murder Mysteries” last year that the presence of screw-in dental posts suggested that they were the handiwork of a dentist in Japan or Korea.

That analysis, which turned out to be incorrect, informed drawings and descriptions of Christy Crystal Creek that appeared on missing-persons posters and on the internet, and guided the investigation. No useful leads emerged.

In 2006, the authorities identified another woman — Marcella Cheri Bachman, known as Marci — whose remains had been found in 1984 not far from where those of Christy Crystal Creek were discovered. As investigators pieced together Ms. Bachman’s story, they became convinced that she had been killed by Mr. Nance, who was a bouncer at a local bar at the time. Mr. Nance was killed in 1986 while entering his employer’s home and was never charged with murder.

Without knowing who Christy Crystal Creek was, it was not possible to figure out if she also could have crossed paths with Mr. Nance.

Credit…Missoula County Sheriff’s Office

In recent years there have been significant advances in the field of human identification, and last year investigators turned again to Christy Crystal Creek’s teeth. From a molar, Othram, a private lab that works with law enforcement, was able to create a genetic profile that was compatible with genealogy databases, said David Mittelman, Othram’s chief executive.

An investigator with the Missoula County Sheriff’s Office cold case team uploaded that profile to two databases, FamilyTreeDNA and GEDmatch. They quickly found someone who appeared to be a first cousin of their mystery woman, Deputy Lane said. The Sheriff’s Office called the cousin to find out if anyone had gone missing in his family.

It did not take long to get from there to a name — Janet Lee Lucas — and an age: 23. Her twin brother, Jim Lucas, 60, recalled getting the call about his sister.

In an interview, Mr. Lucas said that she and her son were living with him in Spokane when she vanished. One day, she left to get a pack of cigarettes and didn’t come home when he was expecting her to. He tracked her down to a bar, where they had a fight.

“I went back out to my car thinking, she’ll be home soon,” he said. “But that was the last time I saw her.”

In good times, he said, his sister was a “loving mother and loving sister who always had a smile on her face.” But she was also struggling with the pressures of being a single mother. He thought maybe that and the influence of some hard-partying friends had pushed her to run off.

But as the weeks turned to years, and then decades, he knew there had to be more to the story. When he got the call that she had been found, he said, “I went blurry; I fell down to the ground and started crying.”

Mr. Cheney, Ms. Lucas’s son, got a call soon after and agreed to provide a DNA sample to confirm that the investigators’ hypothesis was correct.

Though he was only 5 when he last saw her, “I remember my mom; I remembered the way she smelled,” he said. “It was very traumatic for me not having her.”

Mr. Cheney, who was adopted after his mother went missing, was familiar with the name Christy Crystal Creek. Since the creation of the internet, he had been scouring descriptions of Jane Does, searching for his mother, he said.

Christy Crystal Creek was about his mother’s age and was found not too long after his mother disappeared. But “it listed her as a Japanese woman,” said Mr. Cheney, who is white. “My mom is not Asian, obviously.”

Kirsten Green Mink, an anthropology professor at the University of Montana, said that was a “perfect example” of how forensic anthropology can mislead people when an ancestry assessment is taken as gospel.

“Our toughest part is educating law enforcement and the public that it’s not an exact science,” she said, noting that the field was still in its infancy when another forensic anthropologist who no longer works at the university reached the incorrect conclusion about Christy Crystal Creek’s dental work.

Deputy Lane and other investigators now hope to figure out who killed Ms. Lucas. It’s tricky, she said, because the killer did not leave any DNA or personal effects behind, as far as they are aware.

Since the identification was announced, a few leads have trickled in. Deputy Lane said investigators would follow up on those. Now that Ms. Lucas has been identified, she said, there is hope that photos of her life in Montana might surface, offering additional clues about her final months.

For Mr. Lucas and Mr. Cheney, there was a certain relief that came with the identification and their visit to the place where her remains were found. Mr. Cheney said his focus now was giving his mother a proper burial.

“The most important thing,” he said, “is to put my mom to rest and get away from wherever she’s being stored to a place where she can be finally set free.”

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