Who was this man? 30 years later we still don’t know
Sept. 20, 1987, was a pleasant Sunday in Bellingham, with a light breeze and temperatures in the 70s.
About 5:21 that morning, Roy Harris, an employee at Georgia-Pacific’s waterfront mill, checked into a smoke alarm for the No. 9 boiler at the mill’s steam plant.
The boiler was one of 10 at the steam plant, with pipes running through its heat-release stack to preheat steam for use in the pulp-and-tissue mill. The boiler was used only occasionally and so wasn’t checked often. A smoke alarm usually meant a steam pipe was leaking.
Harris went to investigate. He climbed to the top of the No. 9 stack, where a four-foot-wide lid was usually left open, and peered inside the 10-foot-square steel structure.
What he saw revealed a mystery that remains unsolved three decades later.
Looking down, Harris saw human remains, described later in an autopsy report as “partially skeletalized, extensively carbonized,” on a grid of 11 parallel pipes about 17 feet below.
Articles of clothing under the body suggested the person tried to use them to seek relief from the heat and injuries. The victim may have tried to climb to safety.
Harris called plant supervisors and Bellingham police. Officers, in turn, contacted Whatcom County’s deputy medical examiner, Dr. Robert Gibb, who was on Sucia Island.
“It was not one of my favorite afternoons,” Gibb later recalled.
Over the years, Bellingham police contacted law agencies across the country and Canada in an effort to identity the victim. Two sets of forensic drawings, based on the skull and intended to suggest what the person might have looked like, were sent to police and media. The victim had dental work, but no matching dental records were found in missing-person files elsewhere.
Beyond the person’s identity, questions remain about how and why someone would end up, in the words of G-P spokesman Orman Darby, in such a “terribly inaccessible” place.
Theories abound, from suicide to environmental protest, from an accident to a crime.
“Nothing seemed to fit,” said Al Jensen, a detective who worked on the case before he retired from the Bellingham Police Department in 2015. “Nothing about this ever made sense.”
Georgia-Pacific acquired the waterfront mill in 1963 and operated it until the mill closed in 2001. The Port of Bellingham bought the property in 2005; since then, most of the mill’s structures have been demolished to make way for development.
The four-story brick steam plant, also known as the boiler house, was built in 1938 with two boilers. Eight more boilers were added in later expansions. The plant burned wood waste, oil, diesel and natural gas to make steam to power mill operations and to heat offices and labs.
When in use, the stack was a lethal place. The ambient temperature was 95 degrees, but reached 370 degrees when the boiler was fired. The pipes carried 240-degree water.
The boiler was fired intermittently in the months before the skeleton’s discovery, including for 34 hours over Sept. 17-18, a few days before the skeleton was found.
Police estimated the victim had been inside the boiler stack for several days to several weeks. Officers could not find a comparable situation to provide a firm benchmark for determining how long the victim had been exposed to high temperatures.
In addition to the opening at the top of the stack, the interior could be accessed through a steel hatch just above where the body landed. Police concluded the victim entered from the top, because the nuts on the hatch bolts were rusty (it took police nearly two hours to open the hatch) and the hatch could not be secured from the inside.
Reaching the top entry to the stack wasn’t easy. To a layperson, the stack didn’t resemble a chimney; instead of a tall cylinder, it was a squat steel box nestled close to a brick wall and support structures.
To reach the stack, a person had to climb three flights of metal stairs, or ride a vertical conveyor belt inside the steam plant, to reach the roof. From there, there were several routes to the top of the stack. A person could use a ladder from a catwalk by the base of the stack, or scramble up using pipes or other handholds.
A less obvious route was to jump from a nearby roof onto the corrugated metal roof of a small structure next to the top of the stack. An outdoor ladder encased in a protective metal cage went past the small structure, so a person could have hung onto the outside of the cage and leaped to the top of the No. 9 stack.
Generally, four to six employees worked in the steam plant at a time. It was often noisy, and the employees sometimes worked inside enclosed offices.
“It would have been easy for someone to get in there and climb on the roof,” recalled Howard McDowell, G-P’s tissue mill manager when the skeleton was discovered.
Security at the mill was beefed up in advance of the first Earth Day, in 1970, but unauthorized people could still gain access to the property without much problem. There was no secure fencing along railroad tracks into the mill, and while guards patrolled the property around the clock, security cameras weren’t a common feature in the 1980s, said Don Wines, manager of chemical operations at the mill.
If people could sneak into the mill, stack No. 9 itself remained hard to find. An early police report made that clear with a comment by Don Bailey, superintendent of the steam plant: “Mr. Bailey advised that if someone had dumped a body in No. 9, it would be a good place. He said you would have a better chance on winning the lottery than having someone look down Stack No. 9.”
The setting for the mystery is gone. The steam plant was demolished in 2011.
According to the autopsy and police, the victim was likely a man of slight stature, about 25 to 35 years old. He was 5 feet 8 inches to 5 feet 9 inches tall, and weighed 130 to 155 pounds. He’d had decent dental work, with evidence of a root canal and gold and porcelain fillings.
He had numerous fractures, including both thigh bones, several lower-leg bones and two bones in his right arm, that could have resulted from the fall, heat stress, or, maybe, an assault.
The victim wore a lightweight shirt, jeans, a denim-like jacket, and about size-8 sneakers, not hard-toe shoes that workers often wear. It appeared the victim tried to remove his pants, the jacket was found underneath the body, and the shirt was wrapped around a leg, all perhaps to buffer the heat and to bind injuries. The victim had put his socks on his hands, and marks on the inside wall suggest he tried to climb to freedom.
The body’s charred condition made it impossible to test for drugs or alcohol. The use of DNA testing wasn’t common practice for Bellingham police in the 1980s, and the stack’s heat prevented DNA analysis later. Temperatures inside the stack could reach 370 degrees, the range at which DNA degrades.
The victim had no wallet, checks, keys, watch, work helmet or work belt. A welder’s sparking tool was found at the base of the stack, below the skeleton, but workers had been inside the stack several years earlier and there was no proof the tool belonged to the victim.
Police did find a charred, partially readable piece of a perforated Continental airline ticket or baggage claim. The ticket had six numbers, not enough to identify the buyer, ticket seller or itinerary.
In 2006, a news story raised the question of whether the victim might have been female. Richard Severson, a steam engineer at Western Washington University, told The Bellingham Herald that he had given a woman a tour of Western’s steam plant in late summer 1987.
He described the white woman as wiry, in her mid-30s to mid-40s, and perhaps 5 feet 4 inches to 5 feet 6 inches. She had light to medium-brown short hair and was wearing a lined windbreaker, woven blouse, jeans and tennis shoes.
During the tour, they came to a small boiler that was operating and the woman asked if she could go inside. When Severson guided her to an inactive boiler, she climbed inside, sat on some pipes, then exited and re-entered several more times.
Severson asked the strange-acting woman to leave, and mentioned that G-P had boilers, assuming the mill was protected from intruders. A few weeks later, he read news reports about the discovery of the skeleton.
Was the woman the person found inside the stack? Pelvis measurements are a standard way to distinguish female from male skeletons, although there is some margin for error. Police remained confident the victim was a male, with Gibb noting that no female reproductive organs were found among the carbonized remains.
Unidentified human remains are a recurring phenomenon in the United States, with the number dwindling as the science and technology of forensics improves. Whatcom County has three unidentified sets of remains.
The initial effort to identify the G-P skeleton focused on the mill and its workforce. Coordinating with Georgia-Pacific, police quickly decided the victim was not a mill employee or a contract worker. No workers were missing, no paychecks were unclaimed and no vehicles were found abandoned nearby.
A few months after the skeleton was found, police released a forensic sketch of what the victim might have looked like. The drawing by the Oklahoma State Bureau of Identification portrayed a shaggy-haired man with a long face and sunken cheeks.
The drawing and autopsy results were sent to law agencies in numerous states, but no match with a missing person was found. Bellingham police worked the case until 1993, then set it aside.
Six years later, Bellingham Detective Al Jensen reopened the investigation after a police department employee training to become a forensic artist sketched a second image of the victim, one that showed a short-haired man with a more bulbous nose, narrower mouth and fuller cheeks.
Jensen sent the new image to law agencies to see if it resembled a person reported missing a year before to a year after the G-P skeleton was found. When that didn’t produce results, he broadened the inquiry to include people reported missing up to three years before or after.
A possible match involved a man missing from Vancouver, B.C., but no proof was found the man had crossed the border into Washington, and the absence of DNA, fingerprints or dental records made a conclusive match impossible.
All along, police pondered explanations for why a person would end up inside the stack:
Protest: Police checked with environmental groups in case the victim had been protesting or measuring pollution at the mill. None of the groups reported anyone missing, and G-P officials said other parts of the mill offered smarter and safer settings to look for pollutants.
Suicide: While suicide remains a possibility, there are more accessible places and less gruesome ways to end one’s life. Evidence suggesting the person tried to climb out of the stack weighs against the notion of suicide, although that could have been a late change of heart.
Crime: The stack seemed a good place to dispose of a victim, and the absence of identification fits the image of a crime, but there was no evidence that one or more assailants accompanied the victim to the boiler stack.
Prank gone bad: Another possible explanation came to the attention of police after a 2006 Bellingham Herald story about the case. A former employee of Mt. Baker Plywood told Detective Jensen that he had chatted with someone who was visiting the Bellingham plant in 1987, after the skeleton had been discovered.
The visitor mentioned that he and some friends would enter G-P and climb towers for fun. The visitor said a member of the group worked at G-P and helped them gain access to the mill after hours.
If a climber feared detection, he would blow a whistle and they would meet at a pre-arranged place. The visitor said a newer member of the group was a man from New York, and on a recent outing the New Yorker did not show up at the pre-arranged location.
Jensen contacted state police in New York and received information on five missing persons who might be a match. But none of the five files had dental records. Police could not locate the man who told the story while visiting the plywood mill.
In August 2004, Bellingham police again closed their investigation, deciding that all leads had been exhausted and the victim’s identity could not be determined. The skeletal remains were to be cremated or buried.
Generally in Whatcom County, indigents’ remains are cremated and the urns are stored in a common vault at Greenacres Memorial Park. When enough urns are in storage, after perhaps 20 years, a cluster of urns is buried together in one gravesite.
Rules about privacy prevented a spokesman at Greenacres from talking specifically about the remains of the G-P victim. So, fittingly, details about the final resting place remain a mystery.
The case of the G-P skeleton remains a tragic mystery.
“Whoever this person was, they have family somewhere,” Jensen said. “Somebody had to miss this person.”
Dean Kahn worked at The Bellingham Herald from March 1986 to October 2016 as a reporter, news editor, columnist and magazine editor. He was the newspaper’s police and courts reporter when the skeleton was discovered at Georgia Pacific.