Thursday, June 22, 2017 This Week's Paper

Authorities work to identify young woman’s remains

// Woman burned in 1991 could be Native American

Long-haul driver Lester Harvel had just dropped a load off in Tacoma on May 14, 1991 and was headed south on I-5 near Kalama when his semi-truck crashed into another one that had stopped for some roadway construction. Harvel, 26, was burned in the crash beyond recognition and so was his passenger, a woman who has never been identified.

Over the next 23 years, WSP detectives have worked to learn who she was. For almost a decade, Detective Greg Wilcoxson has spent a decade on the case and says, “We do not believe that he was dating her, reason being he had a girlfriend back in the Missouri area to our understanding."

Harvel started his trip in Missouri and somewhere along the line picked up the unauthorized passenger. She was buried in an unmarked grave at the Longview Memorial Park and Cemetery in Cowlitz County. Investigators say some clues at the scene of the accident indicate she may have been Native American. On Jan. 8, after a blessing from Puyallup Tribe Cultural Director Connie McCloud and other Puyallup tribal members, and financial support from Crime Stoppers of Tacoma-Pierce County and Washington's Most Wanted, her remains were exhumed in hopes of getting DNA from her bones. This could lead to her identity and to a family who has likely been looking for her all this time.

Det. Wilcoxson says, “This is somebody’s sister, somebody’s daughter who has been unidentified now for over 20 years as a result of a motor vehicle collision and the Washington state patrol would like to identify who this person is so we can notify the family.”

The remains will now begin an arduous journey, stopping first in King County for facial reconstruction by a forensic anthropologist then moving on to the University of North Texas for DNA extraction and entry into several databases in hopes of finding a match or a relative.

“Once the facial reconstruction is complete, we hope to get that picture and information out to as many people as we can,” said WSP Detective Sergeant Moate. “Although this was not a criminal case, we were determined to identify this young lady and do everything we could to get her home. We are hoping this is the final step toward that goal."

According to Pierce County Detective Ed Troyer, “With this new technology we will do more of these in the future to help families find closure.”