La. trooper IDs body unclaimed for 30 years
By Mary Foster
The Associated Press
NEW ORLEANS — From the time he was 9, Dennis Stewart was haunted by a boy eight years his elder.
For Stewart, now a state trooper, Danny Dewey's funeral last month laid to rest the ghost of a slight young man who was murdered and dumped near Stewart's boyhood home nearly three decades before.
What led up to the quiet service also answered a simple question that had captivated Stewart since he heard about the body found not far from where he was growing up: Who was he?
The killing was the talk of rural Greensburg, La., about 100 miles north of New Orleans, where the population has hovered around 600 for years.
"Murder is something that doesn't happen in Greensburg," Stewart said. "And here was a really horrible murder dumped on our doorstep."
Police investigated, but the case went cold. No one knew who he was. No one claimed the body.
The years passed and the case was largely forgotten by all but Stewart. As a youngster, horrified by the killing, he couldn't get over how someone not much older than he could be killed and yet no one would miss him, or claim him.
In fact, it was easy for Danny to be lost.
"Our mother died in a car accident when I was seven and Danny was six," Billy Dewey, one of the victim's three brothers, said Wednesday. "We were all just sort of farmed out after that, going from relative to relative. Our upbringing was pretty rough."
Dewey, 47, remembers the last time he saw Danny - the day Billy graduated from high school in May, 1979.
"Danny was a junior in high school," Dewey said. "But the people we lived with moved the next day, Danny and I were both homeless then. The last time I saw Danny he was getting on a bus."
In 1995, Stewart became a State Police detective and renewed his interest in the unidentified body, putting hours into solving the case, or at least determining the teenager's identity.
"He did most of the work on his own time," said Lt. Doug Cain II, a State Police spokesman. "Even after he transferred to the academy, he kept at it. It was kind of like a puzzle he couldn't stop worrying with."
The victim, found Nov. 12, 1979, was slightly built with long blond hair and blue or gray eyes. He wore shoes that were too big and on the wrong feet, oversized pants, a black T-shirt with the phrase "Sex is better than weed if you have the right pusher" on the back.
Police said there was no sign of sexual assault.
He had been dead less than a day and was trussed up in a series of knots that Stewart said were deadly by design.
"It appears that the manner in which he was tied, the ropes around his neck connected to the ropes binding his hands and feet, were designed to kill him," Stewart said. "As he struggled, it basically constricted on him and caused his death."
Fingerprints were taken, but in the 1970s, identification by computer cross-referencing was a still-new science and fingerprint databases were far from complete.
"I assume they sent the fingerprints out, but they were never connected to anyone," Stewart said.
Locals took up a collection to have the body buried in Pine Hill Cemetery. The tombstone read, "Unidentified Homicide Victim."
Two more bodies - young men bound in a similar, intricate style, had already turned up in Mississippi and Louisiana, but no one was arrested.
"I'm sure it was the same person," Stewart said. "But after those three it ended. Either the killer died or went to prison."
As Stewart began his investigation, he found much of the physical evidence was missing. Early investigators had not taken dental impressions, and DNA identification was not in use in 1979.
On July 31, 2000, the remains of the nameless victim were exhumed. By then, forensic investigation and computer search capabilities had blossomed, and Stewart was hopeful of getting a lead.
"I kind of thought from the beginning that the chances of me finding the party responsible was going to be limited," Stewart said. "But I thought maybe I can identify him."
DNA testing provided no revelations, but in June, acting on a colleague's suggestion, Stewart submitted the body's fingerprints through the FBI's Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System, a more efficient system for matching prints than was available in 1979.
The search produced a match from an arrest in Baytown, Texas, in 1979. Daniel Wayne Dewey had been arrested for a misdemeanor - riding a motorcycle without a helmet or an operator's license.
In early June, Stewart found Billy Dewey living near Baytown, outside Houston, and phoned him.
"It was a relief at first," Dewey said. "Then I found out how he died and it became both relief and sadness. I can't get the way he was tied up out of my mind. The lonely way he died."
Over the years, Stewart's relationship with the dead boy had deepened.
"I felt like I had gotten to know him during the time I was trying to identify him," Stewart said. "It was moving to see him finally returned to them. It was like sending him home."
The family claimed the body and held a memorial service June 23. The remains of Daniel Dewey, 17, were cremated and taken by his closest brother, Norman, to his home in Ponca City, Okla.