RENSSELAER — More than 38 years after his remains were found by a fox hunter setting traps in a Jasper County field, a 19-year-old Indiana man has been identified as yet another victim of serial killer Larry Eyler.
William J. "Bill" Lewis, of Peru, Indiana, was last seen by his family in February 1982 at a friend's funeral in Houston, Texas.
Lewis planned to hitchhike home, which was a normal practice for him, but never made it, Jasper County Coroner Andy Boersma said.
Boersma was joined by members of Lewis' family, retired Detective Paul Ricker and current members of the Jasper County Sheriff's Office on Thursday night at a news conference to announce Lewis had been identified.
Anthony Redgrave, co-founder Redgrave Research Forensic Services, Zoomed into the news conference to explain how his company used forensic genetic genealogy to identify Lewis.
Joshua Shuck, Lewis' nephew, said his family was grateful that law enforcement never gave up.
Shuck said his grandmother, who once wrote to "Unsolved Mysteries" seeking help, never gave up hope that Lewis was still alive.
She died last year, before Boersma reached out to Redgrave for help identifying the remains found so long ago.
Shuck, 32, said he never knew his uncle Bill, but he always wanted to meet him.
People around Peru told Shuck his uncle played football and was a quiet person, he said. Shuck's father, Roy, used to tell him Bill was killed by the mob, because he was there one day and vanished the next. Roy never really knew what happened to his brother, he said.
"It's rough, but the closure is nice," he said.
The Highway Killer
Eyler, dubbed the Highway Killer, confessed to his defense attorney, Kathleen Zellner, in 1994 to killing more than 20 young men and boys.
In one of those confessions, he talked about picking up a young man in fall 1982 along U.S. 41 near Vincennes, Indiana.
Eyler told Zellner he bound, gagged and assaulted the man and dumped his body in a field in Jasper County, Boersma said.
Jasper County sheriff's police knew the unidentified remains found in 1983 belonged to one of Eyler's victims, but they didn't have enough evidence to determine the man's identity until now.
Ricker said he was the first deputy on the scene in 1983. He received a call that a possible monkey skull had been found in a field, which hadn't been worked in some time, he said.
He arrived and as he scuffled his feet around in the dirt, he kicked up a jawbone and the teeth had fillings in them. That's when he began his investigation, he said.
For about two weeks, Ricker worked from 7 or 8 a.m. to midnight collecting evidence from the scene and documenting and photographing it back at the old Sheriff's Office, he said.
His department and Indiana State Police sent out alerts with information about the case, but the investigation went stale, he said.
In 1994, he went to talk to Eyler in prison, but when Eyler saw Ricker wasn't his attorney, he turned and walked out.
Ricker got a call later from Zellner, who offered to meet with him in her Chicago office to share information.
Eyler was on death row at the time for the 1984 murder of 15-year-old Danny Bridges, whose body was found in eight garbage bags in a dumpster in Chicago in August 1984.
Eyler died in an Illinois prison in 1994, and Zellner released his confessions after his death.
'This is somebody's kid'
Boersma inherited Lewis' case about 20 years ago, during his first term as Jasper County coroner.
He and Ricker said they were grateful to Redgrave for helping to finally bring the case to a close.
Boersma said his office made a couple of previous attempts to identify the remains through DNA, but received no conclusive results, he said.
In January, Redgrave Research Forensic Services student intern Bryan Worters approached Andy Boersma and his wife, Diana, who also has served a term as Jasper County coroner, about identifying the man.
The man's DNA was processed and uploaded to the GEDmatch database, which allows people to compare their results from DNA tests from companies such as Ancestry or 23andMe to other people.
Worters led the research under the guidance of lead forensic genetic genealogists and instructors Anthony Redgrave and Lee Bingham Redgrave and help from other student interns. The team found a potential candidate for identification in six days, Redgrave said.
Boersma requested assistance from the Tomball, Texas, Police Department to take a DNA sample from Lewis' sister, he said.
Just before Thanksgiving, Boersma was able to deliver the news to the family that Lewis had finally been positively identified, he said.
"The wheels of justice sometimes turn pretty slow, but we didn't want to forget him," Boersma said.
The family is planning a formal service for Lewis, and his remains will be returned to Peru for burial next to his father.
An emerging science
When asked about the cost for Redgrave Research Forensic Services' efforts, Boersma said: "Priceless."
"This is somebody's kid, and somebody has to take him home," he said.
Redgrave estimated the cost for such an investigation was about $6,000. Boersma later said his office was able to secure grants to pay about half of the cost.
Redgrave said he began using this method of technology in 2018, but others had been working with it earlier.
"The theory was always there," he said. "When adoptees started finding out about their birth parents, people began thinking, 'Why can't we use this for cold cases?'"
Redgrave said the method his team uses is a new field.
"This is an effective way to bring about closure in a case," he said. "And in my opinion, it's only going to speed up."
He team was involved in two other identifications also announced Thursday, he said.
Redgrave said his team researched 67 DNA matches and developed a "research tree" with more than 10,000 individuals, which led his team to Lewis' sister.
Companies such as Ancestry and 23andMe don't share results with law enforcement, Redgrave said.
Individuals can share DNA test results with GEDmatch. FamilyTreeDNA provides tests and allows people to share results with law enforcement, he said.
To learn more about how to share DNA test results with law enforcement, go to Help.FG4LE.com.