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New Technologies Identify 1996 Cold Case Missing Person
06/16/2011
The following is a news release from the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office
 
On May 15, 1996 a man walking his dog in a grassy field west of the Troutdale Airport stumbled across human bones. A subsequent grid search by Multnomah County Sheriff's Office Search and Rescue personnel recovered most the subject's skeletal remains.
 
Longtime MCSO Detective Jim McNelly headed the investigation. Working with him on her first case with the State Medical Examiner's Office was Forensic Anthropologist Nici Vance. She was able to determine that the remains were that of a middle aged man, approximately five foot five inches tall, with distinctive and extensive dental work. Even more telling towards the man's identity were that the lower left arm bones were held together with two steel plates and his shirt was imprinted with the name Walla Walla College. The remains had been exposed to the elements where they were found for at least a year.
 
With no clear indications of how the man died and no way to establish his identity, the investigation stalled and the remains were stored at the Medical Examiner's Office.
 
Approximately ten years later Forensic Anthropologist Vance began a project to reprocess and re-catalog fifty three unidentified skeletal remains stored at the Medical Examiner's Office, the oldest of which dated back to 1968. Part of this process included sending bones from each case to a federally funded laboratory at the University of North Texas that provides DNA analysis to law enforcement agencies. The laboratory checks its findings with national law enforcement, medical examiner, and other missing person databases.
 
In late 2009 Forensic Anthropologist Vance sent a bone sample from the 1996 case. Nine months later he was identified as Robert Clayton French.
 
Just over fifteen years after French's remains were found, the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office Cold Case Team was able to find a brother who provided more information about French.
French was born March 18, 1944 in Florida, moving to, growing up in, and educated in the Ann Arbor, Michigan area. He taught French in schools in Michigan and Canada, moved to Switzerland to study, and obtained his PhD at Idaho State University. He moved to Portland in 1994 to visit a friend he had met in Switzerland. French suffered from bi-polar disorder for which he refused to take medication for as well as Crohn's disease. By 1994 he was living the life of a transient, having several contacts with police for drugs offenses, disorderly conduct, park exclusions, arrests, and citations, the last of which was in 1995.
 
His brother had last had contact with French in 1995. Having not heard from him for several years, he filed a missing person report with the Portland Police Bureau in 2001, and had him declared legally dead in 2004. He also knows his brother married twice, but does not know the names or locations of either wife. He also does not know the name or location of the person his brother had met in Switzerland and intended to visit in the Portland area.
 
French's identification was the 12th since 2007 from remains sent by the Medical Examiner's Office to the University of North Texas. Forensic Anthropologist Vance says there are 10 more skeletal samples to submit.
 
Vance praised a National Institute of Justice website called www.NamUs.gov as a valuable tool and clearinghouse for families of missing people and law enforcement agencies.
 
"I have to admit this case was pretty special to me," said Vance.  "It was my first case.  He had never been identified and I wondered who he was. This project is near and dear to my heart. My goal is to get these people identified."
 
The investigation of the death of Robert Clayton French has become an active case for the Sheriff's Office Cold Case Team. The team, comprised of up of five retired detectives and two staff volunteering their time, includes Jim McNelly, the original lead detective.
 
The Cold Case detectives are asking the public for any information they may have about Robert French, including his friends, former wives, whereabouts and activities near the time of his death in 1995.
 
The Multnomah County Cold Case team can be reached at 503-251-2404 or via email at coldcase@mcso.us.