A mom found a jawbone in her son’s rock collection. 22 years later, genealogy researchers ID’d the remains of a US Marine

More than 20 years after a mother found a human jawbone hidden in her son’s rock collection, genetic genealogy experts have unraveled the discovery and identified the partial remains of a US Marine Corps captain.

Adding to the decades-long mystery was that 30-year-old Capt. Everett Leland Yager, who died in a military training exercise in July 1951 over Riverside County, California, was previously thought to have been buried in Palmyra, Missouri.

The Ramapo College of New Jersey’s Investigative Genetic Genealogy Center, which opened two years ago, helped identify the bone as belonging to Yager in March, according to a news release.

The son had inherited the rocks from his grandfather, who was an avid rock collector, according to the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office in Northern Arizona. In 2002, his mother found the collection, came across what looked to be human remains and contacted the sheriff’s office, authorities said in a statement.

The sheriff’s office received a human jawbone containing several teeth that officials said was likely picked up somewhere in the county, though the family who found it in their son’s rock collection was not certain exactly where or when, according to the Investigative Genetic Genealogy Center. The remains were dubbed “Rock Collection John Doe.”

It’s not clear how the jawbone ended up in Arizona, but it’s possible, according to Ramapo College, that a bird picked it up from California.

Traditional DNA testing at the time yielded no government database matches to the remains.

In January 2023, the sheriff’s office and the Yavapai County Medical Examiner referred the case to the Investigative Genetic Genealogy Center. The college partnered with the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office to work on the case for free, the sheriff’s office said in a statement.

“Because (investigative genetic genealogy) uses a different type of DNA testing than what’s normally performed under law enforcement, the remaining extract from previous DNA testing that was done needed to go to a second laboratory,” Cairenn Binder, assistant director of the Ramapo College Investigative Genetic Genealogy Center, told CNN.

The extract was sent to a forensics lab in Salt Lake City, Utah, where it underwent advanced DNA genotyping, Binder said. From there, a profile was developed and uploaded to two genealogy databases – GEDmatch Pro and FamilyTreeDNA, the news release states.

After a monthslong laboratory process in Salt Lake City, the college’s Investigative Genetic Genealogy Bootcamp received the case last July and used the profile to identify Yager.

The bootcamp participants, who typically range in age from 18 to 80, included a 15-year-old high school student named Ethan Schwartz, who Ramapo College says is reportedly the youngest person ever to contribute to an investigative genetic genealogy case resolution.

The cohort used data from GEDmatch Pro and FamilyTreeDNA to examine seven key genetic matches to develop a hypothesis that the jawbone belonged to Yager, Binder said.

“This was really unusual because typically when we’re resolving a case, we’re looking for a missing person, a person that we can’t find any records for,” Binder said.

“When the students came up with the candidate of Mr. Yager, where circumstances of his death were already known and he’d had a military funeral burial that was documented in public records, that was confusing to both our staff and students,” she added.

The bootcamp team shared the information with the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office, who contacted Yager’s next of kin to confirm a DNA relationship to his closest living relative.

A reference sample collected from Yager’s daughter led to the positive identification of Yager in March, according to Ramapo College, which stated in a release that plans were being made to return Yager’s remains to his family.

The successful identification marked the first case resolution performed by the Investigative Genetic Genealogy Center summer bootcamp student cohort, according to the college.

“This case would have remained unresolved, the mystery would have remained in Yavapai County,” Gurney said. “I think it shows how investigative genetic genealogy has stepped in and become the most really incredible investigative tool since the advent of DNA.”

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