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Dogs comb Maxwelton Beach for clues to an old homicide

Christine Bunn of Snohomish County Volunteer Search and Rescue watches closely as her yellow Labrador retriever Springfield sniffs for human remains on Maxwelton Beach on Friday morning.  - Brian Kelly / The Record
Christine Bunn of Snohomish County Volunteer Search and Rescue watches closely as her yellow Labrador retriever Springfield sniffs for human remains on Maxwelton Beach on Friday morning.
— image credit: Brian Kelly / The Record

MAXWELTON — Three four-legged sleuths combed Maxwelton Beach at Useless Bay for nearly four hours on Friday, searching for clues that might lead to the identity of an apparent homicide victim whose skull was found in the same area late last fall.

“Cadaver dogs” belonging to members of Snohomish County Volunteer Search and Rescue crisscrossed more than a mile of beach and embankments, from Dave Mackie Park northward.

They were searching for human remains that could be tied to the cranium portion of a skull belonging to a male 35 years or younger. The skull had two marks indicating violence from a sharp object, and death may have occurred more than 10 years ago, officials said.

“Our ultimate goal is to determine who he was and what happened to him,” said Island County Sheriff’s Detective Ed Wallace, who organized the search.

Combing the beach on a cool and damp day were Shadow, a German shephard; Springfield, a yellow Labrador retriever; and Rommel, a Weimaraner.

“They’re trained to alert us to decaying human flesh,” said Deputy Glen Bergstrom of the Snohomish County Sheriff’s search and rescue division.

“They’re good at finding old human bones,” he added. “But obviously, fresher is better.”

The search lasted into the afternoon, but no further clues were discovered, Wallace said.

“We found a lot of sand dollars and a lot of shells, but nothing else,” he said, adding that another search may be organized if more remains materialize.

“We’d probably narrow the window,” Wallace said. “With so many square miles, it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack.”

He said the next step in the investigation depends on the results of a DNA test on the skull.

Meanwhile, the dogs did their best, swerving back and forth along the beach and shoreline, sniffing and looking for clues.

Bergstrom said the dogs undergo training that can run a year and a half, and that they are taught to ignore animal remains. If they find something human, they mark the discovery by sitting down, he said.

“We’ve had many negative searches,” Bergstrom said, “probably because there was nothing to be found. But we’ve found many remains, too.”

The skull section was discovered near the surf line on Nov. 26 by two visitors from Mercer Island, who kept it in a garage until turning it in to Mercer Island police early this past month.

The skull was later sent to the King County Medical Examiner’s Office, which will send a portion of it for DNA testing, Wallace said.

The skull was found rolling in the surf on Maxwelton Beach between Dave Mackie Park and Mill Beach Lane to the north. Wallace declined to reveal the exact location.

The two marks on the skull indicate the victim may have been struck with a sharp instrument such as an axe, hatchet or machete, he said.

Wallace said officials are poring through cold cases, but have yet to come up with a likely match.

He said that the skull’s condition indicates that it didn’t spend significant time in the water, and that it most likely washed down the beach to the water line from the prior day’s high tide.

Meanwhile, a camera crew from the TV show “Washington’s Most Wanted” was expected to document Friday’s beach search, but failed to show.

“I guess they were more interested in tsunamis,” Wallace said, referring to the massive earthquake and tidal wave that struck Japan late this week.

Wallace urged anyone who finds bones on South End beaches that could possibly be human to contact him at 360-678-7968.

 

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