Teen hitchhiker killed in Alabama crash identified through genetic genealogy after 60 years

CENTREVILLE, Ala. — A teenage hitchhiker killed in a 1961 car crash in rural Alabama has been identified six decades later by DNA and genetic genealogy, according to authorities.

The identification of 15-year-old Daniel Paul “Danny” Armantrout is the oldest case involving the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children to be solved through the technology.

“It’s really a shocker to all of us,” Bibb County Coroner C.W. West said, according to AL.com. “I had my doubts at first, just because of how long it’s been. I am very relieved and excited and overwhelmed.”

Authorities said Danny was hitchhiking along Highway 25, near the Bibb and Shelby county line, on March 27, 1961, when he was picked up by motorist James White. According to Identifinders International, which helped solve the case, the teen told White his parents were divorcing, and he’d run away from home.

Shortly after White picked the boy up, tragedy struck. White’s vehicle struck a guardrail near River Bend bridge and plunged into the murky Cahaba River below.

White survived. His young passenger drowned.

‘Unknown in life but recognized in death’

Investigators were left with little to tell them who the boy might be. His brown plastic wallet carried no identification, according to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs.

The only accessories he had were a cheap Timex watch and a religious medal tied around his neck with cotton twine, NamUs said. The suitcase of clothes he carried indicated he may have been from a colder northern climate, and a pack of Pall Mall cigarettes found at the scene bore a South Carolina tax stamp.

A crude homemade tattoo on his left forearm bore the inscription “RY+LOVE.”

Authorities tried to locate the boy’s family but were unsuccessful. After a couple of weeks, the Bibb County community came together to bury him at Centreville Memorial Cemetery.

His headstone bears the epitaph, “Unknown in life but recognized in death.”

“This has been on my mind for 55 years,” Jim Oakley told WBRC in Birmingham in 2016, as the boy’s remains were exhumed for DNA testing.

Oakley, who was the publisher of Centreville’s local newspaper in 1961, took photographs of the teen in the morgue that were used to create a drawing of what he might have looked like before his death.

The former publisher also served as one of the unknown boy’s pallbearers.

“Every time I come by here and look at that grave, I think about that day,” Oakley said as he watched workers extract the teen’s casket from the ground.

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The DNA obtained from the boy’s remains would five years later prove to be the key to his identity.

Bibb County authorities received a call in 2016 from the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, according to AL.com. The missing children’s organization provided the funds for the exhumation so investigators could use modern technology to identify the child.

The bone fragments and teeth taken from his remains were sent to the University of North Texas’ laboratory.

Danny remained unidentified for another four years before Identifinders International joined the investigation in October 2020. Dr. Colleen Fitzpatrick, the founder and president of the organization, is a renowned forensic genealogist.

When genetic genealogy hit mainstream law enforcement in 2018, Fitzpatrick was already well-versed in the technology. She was the first person to use the method to generate leads in cold cases, according to her website.

The method takes a DNA profile and compares it to profiles collected in public genealogy databases. The genealogist can then reverse-engineer a family tree and narrow down a list of close family members of the DNA donor.

According to AL.com, Fitzpatrick and Bibb County authorities considered again exhuming the boy’s body last November before authorities remembered that some of his bones were in Texas. They retrieved those remains and sent them to a different lab in Utah, then one in California.

Technicians pulverized the bone fragments to obtain the boy’s DNA, and Fitzpatrick was able to trace the profile to the Armantrout family. The first relative authorities found was a cousin living in Germany.

“He remembers him, but it’s been such a long time,” West told AL.com.

Watch Bibb County officials talk about the identification of Danny Armantrout below, courtesy of AL.com.

They next were able to track down Danny’s 77-year-old brother, who lives in Florida. His brother told investigators that their parents, Alfred Armantrout and Virginia Berner, had divorced when Danny was young, and their mother remarried.

She and her new husband moved her three sons, including Danny, to Tennessee, but it was not a happy time, the news site reported. Eventually, Danny left home.

His surviving brother, who was in the U.S. Army at the time, never got to say goodbye.

“When (the brother) came back home, he realized Danny had run away,” West said. “He didn’t know where he went or how to find him.”

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The third brother, David Armantrout, who was the oldest of the three, also ran away shortly after Danny left. David, who may have gone by the last name of Hamilton, remains missing.

If David Armantrout is alive, he is 79 years old.

The surviving Armantrout brother was emotional when he learned what had become of his younger brother, West said.

“He wants to come up and have a memorial service and meet some of the people who worked behind the scenes to locate his brother,” the coroner said.

West also expressed gratitude to the people who made the identification possible, including Gray Hughes Investigates. Hughes runs a YouTube channel on which he takes a look at little-known cold cases and works with authorities to solve them.

He calls his fans the “Freak Family.”

The announcement that Danny had been identified was streamed live on Hughes’ channel, and he and his followers were instrumental in making the identification happen.

“Gray and his YouTube audience of ‘Freaks’ generously funded the expensive and time-consuming investigation that required almost a year of work to gain viable DNA for a SNP profile,” Fitzgerald wrote in a statement.

Hughes tweeted that the positive identification was a “great moment for the Freak Family channel.”

West told AL.com that a headstone bearing Danny’s name will be added to his gravesite.

“It’s really amazing,’’ West said. “I cannot express enough how grateful I am, as well as many others, to finally be able to put his name on his headstone. Thank you all for the ones that never gave up on him.”