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October 20, 2013

‘Mr. Bones’ decoded?: Sleuth believes remains found in Bedford 55 years ago may be Ohio man

BEDFORD — The skeletal remains of a man found in Bedford County 55 years ago and never identified or claimed by family members, may have been the victim of a murder in Lima, Ohio, a Fayette County man says.

Ed Festor, a civil engineer from Uniontown, with a fascination for unsolved mysteries, thinks the man was Charles Conner of Lima, Ohio.

“I’ve worked on this for months, and I think I know who he was,” Festor said in a telephone interview from his home. “I’m as certain as I can possibly be without having DNA.”

Festor asserts that “Mr. Bones” was a homicide victim killed in a drunken card game.

“He wasn’t killed in Bedford. He was brought quite a long way,” Festor said. “He was killed celebrating his 37th birthday.”

The decomposed body, dubbed “Mr. Bones” by deputies in the Bedford County sheriff’s office, was discovered about a mile north of the Bedford Borough line near the Midway Plaza of the Pennsylvania Turnpike in Bedford Township.

Based on the condition of the remains, authorities speculate the man was killed in 1956 and his remains were found in a marshy area in 1958.

A crew installing a natural gas pipeline through Bedford County made the grisly discovery.

The remains were sent to an FBI crime lab where forensic experts pieced together enough of the body to determine the man had a forceful lantern jaw and a thick shock of brown hair.

Experts learned he had received extensive

dental work, including a gold tooth, and wore contact lenses, a relatively new technology

57 years ago.

His age at time of death was set at 30 to 35 years and weight was likely about

200 pounds with a height of 6 feet 4 inches tall, state police investigators said in 2004.

Conner, Festor said, was born in 1920 and is believed to have died in 1957.

He was about 6 feet 2 inches tall, weighed a little more than 200 pound and had brown hair, all descriptive elements that fit the crime lab description of the dead man, Festor said.

The story of Mr. Bones was first published by The Tribune-Democrat in 2001 when then Bedford County Sheriff Gordon Diehl found a burial plot and came up with a donated gravestone and casket.

He even lined up a preacher for a funeral service.

But the interment came to a halt when,  in an 11th-hour hearing, Bedford County’s district attorney at the time, Dwight Diehl, convinced a judge to halt the proceedings because the remains were evidence in an unsolved murder.

The remains were turned over to state police. To this day they remain in an evidence area at the barracks near Cessna, Bedford County District Attorney William Higgins said Friday.

Under the direction of Trooper Joseph Kovel, an investigator in Bedford handling cold case files, a composite picture of

Mr. Bones was developed and distributed over a multistate area in the hopes a family member or friend would provide identification.

That was in 2004. Koval told The Tribune-Democrat three years later that the picture sparked a lot of responses, but nothing concrete enough to lead authorities to an identification.

Koval has since moved on, and cold cases are now handled out of the Hollidaysburg barracks, Higgins said. Attempts to reach the officer-in-charge were unsuccessful Friday.

Modern technology opened the door for DNA comparisons, with samples taken from bone scrapings and items found in the vicinity of the body, including a shaving kit, camp stove, gun and ammunition and a book of classic literature.

Festor is convinced the items were placed beside the body by the killer as a ruse and a way to suggest suicide.

He is also convinced Conner was shot between the eyes in a homicide witnessed by others and reported to Lima area authorities.

The alleged shooter was tried in what was termed a bodiless trial. He was convicted of manslaughter and given a 10-year prison term. He was released on appeal.

Anna Selfridge of the Allen County Museum and Historical Society has been working with Festor since November and was instrumental in tracking down information about Conner and the convicted shooter.

“It certainly looks like it could fit,” Selfridge said Friday. “He (Festor) seems to know what he’s doing.”

As recently as last weekend, Selfridge said, she tracked down the burial plots of Conner’s parents.

“They had his name put on it,” Selfridge said.

Festor and Selfridge said they’ve been able to learn little about Conner other than information that he was a painter and worked on a paint crew.

The Ohio Attorney General’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation has been made aware of the potential link between Lima and Bedford but needs a request by a law enforcement agency to reopen the case.

“We found that while Mr. Conner’s granddaughter is willing to submit to DNA, she is not a good candidate for a definite match,” the unit’s deputy director for communications, Eve Mueller, said in an email Friday.

Meanwhile, Higgins said he had received a letter from Festor outlining his theory and will ask state police to reopen the investigation.

“I’m very optimistic that there is something they can focus on. I’d like to be able to put some closure on this,” he said.

Higgins said it is extremely unlikely that any criminal charges would result.

But, Higgins said, his office still considers Mr. Bones an open case and would like to see it closed.

Kathy Mellott covers Bedford County for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/kathymellotttd.

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