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The secret of ‘Palisades Pete’: How human remains found at reservoir were identified

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IDAHO FALLS – It took decades of patience, research and technical innovation to identify the human remains found at Palisades Reservoir, according to a news release from the Bonneville County Sheriff’s Office on Thursday.

Kyle Martin, a 24-year-old from Pennsylvania, was kayaking with a friend on the Hoback River in Teton County, Wyoming, on May 30, 1995. When the friend lost his paddle near the Spotted Horse Ranch, Martin went alone to get their vehicle but was never seen alive again, the Jackson Hole News Guide reports.

Two days later, rescuers found Martin’s kayak snagged upside-down in the river. One of the rescuers, Sheriff’s Deputy David Hodges, told the Jackson Hole News and Guide that a helicopter yanked on the downed tree to dislodge the kayak. Martin’s body came out of the cockpit, submerged and was never seen again. The family, which was also there, saw their loved one’s body momentarily. Where it went after that was unknown.

In September 2002, a man walking his dog near the Palisades Reservoir between Big Elk and Blowout Canyon found what appeared to be a human skull and contacted the Bonneville County Sheriff’s Office. Deputies searched the area and found more bones, including a human sacrum. An Idaho State University anthropologist who examined the bones said they came from a man between 25 and 45 years old of unknown racial origin.

RELATED | Officials identify remains found along Palisades in 2002 as missing kayaker

Since 2002, Bonneville County Sheriff’s Office investigators have applied new technology and advances in DNA identification to this case attempting to identify who the bones belonged to. This process included getting DNA samples from biological relatives of victims from missing persons cases, entering the bones in databases, including National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs), and sending familial samples to the FBI for comparison to the bones.

In 2014, NamUs employee Janet Franson affectionately named the remains “Palisades Pete.”

Until recently, those efforts did not result in answers about the man’s identity, Bonneville County authorities said. In March 2021, they partnered with Othram Inc., a private Texas laboratory that examines forensic evidence with advanced DNA testing to identify the remains of close family members.

Bonneville County contributed $1,000, and Othram crowdfunded the remainder of testing costs. Numerous people with biological relatives who were missing contributed their DNA.

Othram built a “comprehensive genealogical profile” of Palisades Pete.

Detectives eliminated possibilities from other missing persons cases, such as a 1980 boating accident where two men and two children presumably drowned in the reservoir (Larry and Rex Hill, and Laddie and Toni Schiess).

RELATED | Investigators employing advanced DNA testing to ID Palisades’ John Doe

The break came when Hodges, who still works at the Teton County Sheriff’s Office and is a detective, recently became aware of the Palisades Pete bones from an article in Forensics Magazine and contacted Bonneville County Sheriff’s investigators to see if the remains were Martin’s.

The Hoback River flows into the Snake River, which in turn goes through the Palisades Reservoir. Martin died 20 miles upstream from the reservoir.

After entering Martin’s name in NamUs and obtaining a DNA sample from his family, investigators found that the Palisades Pete bones were a match, bringing relief to a family who had waited 26 years for their loved one to be discovered, the Bonneville County Sheriff’s Office said.

The sheriff’s office thanked the following researchers and contributors:

  • Dr. Christian Peterson – Idaho State University
  • Susanne Miller – Faunal Analysis and CRM Services,
  • Dr. Russell Nelson – University of Wyoming,
  • The families of Larry Hill and Laddie Schiess
  • Janet Franson and Jessica Hager – NamUs
  • University of North Texas
  • Othram Inc.
  • FBI
  • Numerous crowdfunding donors

“In particular, we would like to thank Detective David Hodges with Teton County Sheriff’s Office in Wyoming, who was on the initial case when Kyle Martin first went missing in 1995 and continued pursuing leads and information that ultimately lead to this conclusion,” the Bonneville Sheriff’s Office said. “This case is a prime example of how technology and continual efforts of multiple agencies and dedicated individuals working together can solve cold cases. The Bonneville County Sheriff’s Office is happy to be a part of providing answers and closure to a family who have waited for so long (while) missing their loved one.”

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