HUMBOLDT COUNTY – On January 8, 2024, the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO) announced that with the help of DNA and forensic genealogy, the human remains found in 1968 have been identified.
On May 1, 1968, HCSO received a letter in the mail indicating a human skull had been found near Berry Summit. HCSO responded to the scene, located and located additional remains. It was reported two teenagers had been playing in a pile of rocks on April 28, 1968 when they found the skull. Detectives learned the area where the skull was located had been used by Granite Construction in 1965 for storage of debris from the 1964 flood.
The skeletal remains were sent to the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Washington DC and examined at the Smithsonian Institution. The remains were later returned to the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office and buried on June 26, 1968, at Ocean View Cemetery. Not much was known about the remains other that they were that of a male between 45-60 years old.
In 2002 the California Department of Justice (Cal DOJ) began requiring DNA samples be obtained from recovered unidentified human remains.
On December 28, 2010, the unknown subject’s grave was exhumed, and samples were taken for DNA entry. The DNA samples were entered into both the California Missing Person DNA Database and National Unidentified Person DNA Index. The DNA profile was routinely searched against profiles from both missing person and other human remains in the Combined Index System (CODIS). No matches were ever made.
In December of 2022 HCSO and California DOJ partnered with Othram Inc, a forensic genealogy laboratory, to determine if advanced forensic DNA testing could help establish an identity for the unidentified man or a close relative. Using funding provided by ROADS TO JUSTICE (RTJ), California DOJ sent Othram a DNA extract from the unknown man’s remains. Othram scientists used Forensic-Grade Genome Sequencing to build a comprehensive DNA profile for the man. Once the profile was built, Othram’s in-house genealogy team used forensic genetic genealogy to produce investigative leads.
In August of 2023 HCSO received the report from Othram indicating the DNA profile may belong to William Melvin Toller born in 1927. The report included several genetic relatives including a possible child named Anona from Louisiana. HCSO investigators contacted Anona who confirmed she had a father named William Toller, who the family lost contact with when she was eight years old. A DNA sample was obtained from Anona and compared to the DNA from the unidentified male. The DNA proved a genetic match and confirmed the remains were that of William Toller.
According to HCSO, Anona explained her father had lied on his paperwork about his age and joined the Marine Corps when he was 15 years old. He was later injured during combat in the South Pacific. Once completing his enlistment, he attended the University of Idaho and obtained a degree in psychology. Just prior to the Korean War William once again enlisted and was sent to Korea. This time when he returned Anona’s mother told her William was a different man. It is probable that William was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Anona’s parents divorced in the 1950s and the family lost contact with him.
The extended time involved in this case shows DNA remains relevant for many years.
HCSO thanks the California Department of Justice DNA Lab, Othram, and Roads to Justice for their outstanding work and assistance in solving this case and providing the Toller family with some closure for their missing loved one. The HCSO is continuing its partnership with CA DOJ and Othram, and continuing to review several other missing or unidentified remains cases for the use of this latest DNA technology.