Ronald David Chambers
Date Found: August 3, 1980
Date Identified: December 29, 2021
On August 3, 1980, a landowner in northern Snohomish County discovered human skeletal remains while walking on his property. The Snohomish County Sheriff's Office (SCSO) responded to the scene along with a deputy coroner. The skeletal remains were photographed and collected that afternoon, including a skull which showed evidence of a gunshot wound. The remains were designated John Doe 3, case number 80-8-561 by the then Snohomish County Coroner's Office. A secondary search the following afternoon yielded more remains. No clothing jewelry, or any other items that could have been used to aid in identification of the remains were found. On August 4, 1980, Dr. Clayton R. Haberman, MD examined the remains and confirmed that the trauma noted on the skull was in fact a gunshot wound and the case was classified as a homicide. On August 5, 1980, Dr. Keith G. Leonard, DDS conducted a dental exam of the skull and mandible (jawbone) including x-rays and dental charting to be compared to known missing persons.
The following week, the remains were sent to the late Dr. Michael Charney, PhD, who was the director of the Center for Human Identification at Colorado State University. Using the skull, Dr. Charney was able to provide a clay facial reconstruction that was released to the public on November 21, 1980. Dr. Charney estimated that the remains belonged to a white, possible mixed race (Native American) male, approximately 23-28 years of age and 5'5.75"-5'9.25" in height with exceptional dental work. Dr. Charney returned the remains to the Coroner's Office the following Spring and they were buried in the Arlington Municipal Cemetery on May 26, 1981. While it was common practice at the time to bury unidentified remains, skeletal remains that are discovered today are kept at the Snohomish County Medical Examiner's Office until they are identified.
In the years that followed, the case grew cold and, due to a far less extensive record keeping process by the Coroner's Office (which was converted to a Medical Examiner's Office in 1987), it is unclear the extent of work that investigators may have done, including how many known missing persons the remains may have been compared to. The same is true for the Snohomish County Sheriff's Office, whose initial written reports by the responding deputies and detectives are all that remain. Then, in 2008 Detective Jim Scharf with the Snohomish County Sheriff's Office Cold Case Team and retired Snohomish County Superior Court Judge Ken Cowsert began reexamining old unsolved homicide cases in Snohomish County. With the emergence of new DNA technologies, the team was interested in exhuming this case with the hopes of obtaining DNA samples that were not taken during their initial exams. The process of identifying and reviewing the case, obtaining exhumation permits, and conducting DNA testing can take years.
On August 8, 2008, the Snohomish County Medical Examiner's Office entered the case into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs). NamUs is a federal database funded by the National Institute of Justice and contains information on missing persons cases along with unidentified persons cases from across the country. Dental records, when available, can also be unloaded to a NamUs file which can then be easily compared against known missing persons nationwide that have had their own dental records uploaded. The following month, the Sheriff's Office entered the case into the FBI's National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database. Despite the entries, the case remained unsolved.
In 2011, Det. Scharf was able to obtain permission from the Snohomish County Prosecuting Attorney's Office to exhume the remains to obtain a DNA sample for the purpose of identification. The exhumation occurred on July 20, 2011, with representatives with the Sheriff's Office, the Medical Examiner's Office, and Dr. Katherine Taylor, the Washington State Forensic Anthropologist, in attendance. The remains were then transported to the Medical Examiner's Office for further examination.
Dr. Taylor performed an examination of the remains in 2012 and estimated they belonged to a male with European ancestry and possible Asian admixture (i.e., Hispanic) who was 18-50 years in age and was between 5'3" and 5'11" in height. She also confirmed the gunshot wound to the skull. Her report with updated information was added to the NamUs and NCIC files. Following Dr. Taylor's exam, a sample of bone was sent to the University of North Texas Health Sciences Center for DNA extraction and upload to the FBI's Combined DNA Index System (CODIS). Unfortunately, they were unable to obtain a usable sample. A tooth was then sent, however it too failed to provide a useable sample. The remains were kept at the Medical Examiner's Office in the hopes that they could be reexamined in the future for possible DNA analysis as advances in technology improved extraction techniques.
In January 2014, Dr. Stephanie A. Kavanaugh, DMD conducted a new forensic odontology exam. New x-rays were taken that were uploaded to NamUs for comparison and, in the years that followed, dozens of potential matches were ruled out. In 2016, forensic artist Natalie Murry examined the skull and mandible, and that spring provided the Medical Examiner's Office with a facial reconstruction sketch which was released to the media in the hopes of generating new leads.
Two years later, in July 2018, multiple bones were sent to DNA Solutions, a laboratory in Oklahoma City, for microarray DNA testing. DNA Solutions was able to obtain very small amounts of degraded DNA from several bones, but not enough for a genealogical profile.
In April 2020, Dr. Taylor referred the Medical Examiner's Office to Bode Technology in Virginia. Dr. Taylor had a National Institute of Justice grant allotment with Bode Technology and felt this case was a good candidate for another extraction attempt. A bone sample was sent out the following month and in September 2020, Bode Technology was able to obtain a partial DNA profile that they provided to the Baltimore Crime Lab to be uploaded to CODIS. Around this time, the Sheriff's Office obtained funding from the FBI to have Othram Inc. in The Woodlands, TX attempt to obtain usable DNA from the remains. In 2021, Othram was able to obtain a DNA sample that was sufficient for testing after multiple rounds of extraction and human enrichment. Othram scientists used Forensic-Grade Genome Sequencing to develop a DNA profile that could be uploaded to genealogical databases. On November 16, 2021, through their research, Othram's own genetic genealogists were able to provide the Medical Examiner's Office with the name of a possible match, Ronald David Chambers.
Ronald David Chambers was reported missing in King County by his family in 1979. He was last seen by his family on December 17, 1978. While foul play was suspected at the time and a suspect was identified, without a body it could not be proved. Chambers was added to NamUs by investigators with the King County Sheriff's Office and had been looked at as a possible match in the past, however at the time it was investigated in 2019, there was no DNA associated with his NamUs file and no dental records. Ronald's sister was contacted and provided a DNA sample for comparison. On December 29, 2021, the relationship was confirmed by Family Tree DNA, and the remains were officially identified as Ronald David Chambers. In February 2022, dental charting obtained from Ronald's military records was reviewed by Dr. Gary Bell, DDS who also confirmed the identity. The suspect in this homicide died in prison in 1993, so there was no arrest made in this case.
The Snohomish County Medical Examiner's Office would like to thank the following individuals and organizations for their assistance with this case: Othram, Inc., Family Tree DNA/Gene by Gene, SCSO Detective James Scharf and SCSO Cold Case volunteer Ken Cowsert, Jan Gregory of the King County Sheriff's Office, FBI Special Agent Dan Bennett, NCIS Special Agent/Forensic Consultant Ryan Devnich, forensic artist Natalie Murry, the late Dr. Katherine Taylor, PhD, the late Dr. Michael Carney, PhD, Dr. Keith G. Leonard, DDS, Dr. Stephanie A Kavanaugh, DMD, forensic odontologist Dr. Gary Bell, DDS, the Washington State Patrol Missing and Unidentified Persons Unit, Caleb Hutton and Erik Stevik of the Everett Herald, DNA Soluitions, Bode Technology, the Baltimore Police Crime Lab, the City of Arlington and the Arlington Cemetery, NamUs, and the University of North Texas Health Sciences Center. Special thanks to the family of Ronald David Chambers for their invaluable help in solving this 41-year-old mystery.