CENTREVILLE, Ala. (AP) — Crews have unearthed the remains of an unidentified hitchhiker in an effort to solve a mystery that’s lingered in the minds of many in the Centreville community for more than a half century.
Driver James White gave the teenager a ride on the night of March 27, 1961. They only had a few minutes to talk before White’s vehicle hit a wooden bridge rail on River Bend Road and plunged into the Cahaba River. The driver was able to escape, but the boy didn’t.
During the days that followed, people from across the country came to the funeral home in Bibb County, wondering if the young man was their missing loved one. He was never identified, and eventually his body was buried in the Centreville Memorial Cemetery.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children learned of the case and is hoping that the exhumation which occurred Thursday and subsequent DNA testing can now identify him.
Bibb County Deputy Coroner Scott Cox transported the remains to the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences lab in Montgomery. They will be sent to a DNA lab at the University of North Texas, where samples will be uploaded to the national DNA database. A match could put authorities in touch with any relatives of the young man.
He was between 13- and 16-years-old and had a tattoo that read “R.Y. + Love.” He carried a bag of clothing too warm for the Alabama climate, a pack of Pall Mall cigarettes with a South Carolina tax stamp and a photograph of himself with a young woman. He had no identification.
Before the accident, the young man had told the driver that his parents had split up, and that he had a choice of moving to an orphanage or entering the service.
“To us, that’s a good indicator that he had family,” said Carol Schweitzer, senior forensic specialist for the Forensic Services Unit at the missing child center. “We’re hope that getting his story out there will be able to jar somebody’s memory. Maybe he had siblings, cousins or someone who might recognize his story.”
People from Bibb County, Tuscaloosa and Birmingham all contributed money to bury the teen, with a nice marble headstone and several funeral sprays. Jim Oakley, publisher of the Centreville Press at the time, was a pall bearer at the funeral, which was attended by 50 to 75 people, he said. Oakley covered the case since the night of the accident.
“I was up at the hospital for some reason and vividly remember all the hurry and scurry that was going on,” he said. Oakley rushed to the river, which he said isn’t high enough now for a car to be submerged, and watched as divers searched for the car and the body.
He later took a photo of the teen at the funeral home and had a friend, an artist for the Birmingham Post-Herald, make a sketch that was circulated in the area and across the country. The sketch brought a lot of attention, but no answers.
“If we’d had something like Facebook back then, this would have been over a long time ago,” Oakley said. “We were just very limited as to how far we were able to spread the word. But people came to the funeral home from all over the country.”
One couple visited whose son had been missing, he said. The man had a heart attack as soon as he saw the body.
“We just knew that was it, but it turned out that it was not it,” Oakley said.
There was an older woman, however, who may have known the young man. Oakley was friends with the owners of the funeral home, who called him one morning when she arrived.
“I just saw her looking at the casket, but I didn’t talk to her,” Oakley said. “They called me again this afternoon and said she was back. I just hung around in the office and she left again. The next day at 10 a.m. they called and said she was back for a third time. We thought ‘This has got to be her’.”
“She stood there a good long while and sat there on the front row for maybe five minutes, and got up and left,” Oakley said. “None of us had the sense to go look at the records at the hotel in Centreville until years later, and they were long gone.”
Schweitzer said that similar cases have been solved with DNA testing and publicity. This is one of the oldest that center has taken on, she said.
“He deserves a name. He deserves the honor and dignity,” she said. “We’ll be able to call him by his given name and to give some answers back to his family. We’ve had cases in the past where children ran away and the parents never knew what happened to them. They had questions like where did he go, where is he today and is he happy? This isn’t a happy ending, but it could help with some closure. “
Oakley was one of the onlookers who went to cemetery Thursday morning as crews exhumed the gravesite. He’s written columns over the years and has always wondered about the history of the young man he photographed and wrote about as a young reporter.
“Even if they don’t find anything, we’ll know we did the best we could,” he said.