Killed in an accident in 1961, “Unknown Boy” is finally identified

They called him “Unknown Boy”.

The olive-skinned blue-eyed hitchhiker drowned when the car he was in crashed into a bridge railing and plunged into the Cahaba River in Bibb County, Alabama on March 27, 1961, according to an FBI report. The driver survived the crash and provided some details about the boy, but not enough to identify him.

The boy had a packet of Pall Mall cigarettes with him, a Timex watch on his wrist, and a miraculous Immaculate Conception medal tied around his neck with cotton string. He had hitchhiked through Alabama, possibly on his way to California, but not much else was known about him.

Local authorities tried for weeks to identify him and find his family. A visit was made for him at a local funeral home, where many city leaders came to pay their respects. The child was buried in a coffin paid for by local residents, under a white marble headstone that read “Unknown in life but recognized in death”.

Last week, more than 60 years later, the mystery was solved, thanks to advances in DNA technology and genealogy. The boy was Daniel Paul Armantrout, 15, known as Danny, according to a coroner and local genealogists, and confirmed in an interview by a surviving brother.

The case highlights the potential of forensic genealogy, in which DNA samples are analyzed in genealogical databases to locate matches. Detectives at Identifinders International, a company that uses the method to help solve cold cases, smuggled the boy’s genetic material to a genealogy website popular with amateurs called GEDmatch. It was a site detectives have used in recent years to help solve the case of the Golden State Killer, who murdered 13 people and raped dozens of women in the 1970s and 1980s.

In Centerville, Alabama, local officials said they never stopped thinking about the mysterious young hitchhiker who died in their county.

“It just means to the world that we were able to resolve this matter,” said CW West, Coroner-elect for Bibb County. “I lived a few miles from the cemetery where Danny was buried. I spent all the time next to it. Almost everyone here knew about this matter.

Mr West spoke on the phone last week with Danny’s older brother, Don Hamilton, of Seminole, Florida. They both started to cry.

Mr Hamilton, 77, said in an interview that he, Danny and another brother, David, grew up in a seriously abusive home. David, two years his senior, had also fled and Mr. Hamilton has not heard from him since.

Their alcoholic stepfather whipped their bare backs with a belt and burned their fingers with matches. The brothers spent the weekends at a time without food. Their mother told them she wished they had never been born, Mr Hamilton said. Both mother and stepfather are deceased.

Mr. Hamilton escaped as soon as he could and enlisted in the military at the age of 17.

Despite his childhood, Mr. Hamilton has made a good life. He had a 30-year career in the military, retiring in 1989 as a sergeant major. He met his wife while stationed in Germany, fell in love and has been married for over 40 years. He has two daughters and eight grandchildren. A high school dropout, he earned an associate’s degree in business management in the 1990s and was a nutrition coordinator for many years.

But not a day went by, he said, that he did not wonder what had become of his two brothers. About David, the elder. And about her fragile, polio-stricken younger brother Danny.

In 2016, the Center for Missing and Exploited Children helped local authorities exhume the body of the unidentified Alabama boy, to see if modern DNA technology could help solve the mystery.

Researchers constructed a mitochondrial DNA profile and uploaded it to the Combined DNA Index System, a national database maintained by the FBI, but no missing person matches were made, Carol Schweitzer said, a center supervisor, in an email. The case is dormant again.

Earlier this year, Dr. Colleen Fitzpatrick, founder and president of Identifinders International, contacted Mr. West, the new coroner, and they began working together to try the case again. Advanced processing techniques that weren’t available in 2016 were now being used to generate genetic data in order to match, Dr Fitzpatrick said.

Forensic genealogy has its detractors, who have privacy concerns regarding the use of genetic material to trace relatives in criminal cases. Some states, such as Maryland and Montana, have recently made it more difficult for investigators to use the method.

In Maryland, cases will require a judge’s approval before using the method, and the law also requires that the technique be used only for serious crimes like murder and sexual assault. Montana law is narrower, ordering government investigators to obtain a search warrant before using a consumer DNA database, unless the consumer has waived their right to privacy.

Ms Schweitzer of the Missing Children’s Center calls the technique a powerful investigative tool that “breathed new life” into difficult cases.

“We have learned that many of our unidentified minors have never been reported missing to the police, for countless reasons, so relying solely on the search for missing persons reports is not enough,” she declared.

Since 2018, she said, the center has witnessed more than 32 cases of unidentified minors whose names have been returned as a result of genealogy efforts. She said Danny Armantrout’s case represented the oldest unidentified minor case the center had known to be resolved.

The last time Mr Hamilton saw Danny was when he was coming home from military service for a few weeks over Christmas break in 1960, shortly before the younger brother ran away. The two took to the mountains near their rural Tennessee home to go squirrel shooting, one of their favorite things to do. One of their only activities, in fact. They were very poor. There was no TV. No phone. Few other children around.

Mr Hamilton said Danny didn’t tell him about the runaway, but knew Danny did the same math the older brothers had done before: they could stay and be abused or try life by themselves.

“It wasn’t much of a choice,” Mr. Hamilton said.

Mr. Hamilton, and the town that buried the boy the first time, will say goodbye to each other again by dedicating a funeral blanket, this one with a name attached and this time with a loved one present.

The granite slab will bear the name of the biological father of the brothers, Armantrout. Hamilton was the name of their abusive stepfather, Mr Hamilton said. It is too late to change his name for himself, he said, as he is well established in the world as Don Hamilton, but he wanted his little brother to escape the name, at least on his grave.

Mr Hamilton plans to drive his motorhome to Centerville for the ceremony, scheduled for Dec. 28, which would have been Danny’s 76th birthday.

“I am sad because I will never see my brother alive,” he said. “My heart feels good, I will be able to bless his burial place.”

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