PORTLAND — Marvin Clark vanished during a short trip to Portland on Halloween weekend 1926, but the search to find out what happened to him may finally be drawing to a close nearly 90 years later.
Clark’s disappearance is one of the oldest active missing-person cases in the nation, according to a federally funded database of missing persons. Investigators know Clark is not alive — he’d be more than 160 years old — but they believe they have his remains.
Now, they need DNA samples from Clark’s hard-to-find descendants to close the case.
Despite the age of the remains, investigators were able to get a good DNA profile, said Dr. Nici Vance of the Oregon state medical examiner’s office. Volunteer genealogists then found three great-great-grandchildren on the paternal side.
The results were encouraging, but not definitive, Vance said.
Now, “they’re looking for a maternal link, someone on his mother’s side, and following that lineage to shore it up and make the statistics a little better,” she said.
“There’s an association there, but it’s not strong at this point.”
Vance entered Clark’s name into the database of the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, which provides a central repository of information about missing persons and unidentified decedent records. The free online system can be searched at findthemissing.org.
“There might have been an item of jewelry that was found with that person that could trigger a memory of a family member,” she said.
The database, funded by the National Institute of Justice, consists of nearly 10,000 cases. Among the oldest active ones are cases involving a farmer in his 30s who went missing in Oklahoma in 1902, a 2-year-old who disappeared in 1930 in Chicago and a 22-year-old hiker who vanished in Rocky Mountain National Park in 1933.
As might be expected in Clark’s case, which dates back to just before the Great Depression, some facts are sketchy and conflicting. According to the database, he was in his early 60s when he vanished while taking a stagecoach ride to see his Portland doctor in 1920.
But contemporaneous articles from The Oregonian newspaper show Clark was 75 and went missing on a bus trip in 1926. The old clippings say the “well-known” Tigard resident left home on Saturday, Oct. 30, to visit his daughter, Mrs. Sidney McDougall, in Portland.
A frantic search began two days later when Clark’s wife called McDougall and learned he never completed the trip that’s about 10 miles.
McDougall, an article says, had not been expecting a visit from her father because he returned to Tigard from her home only a few days before his disappearance. The newspaper said Clark had been traced to a terminal in downtown Portland, near McDougall’s place.
McDougall offered a $100 reward — more than $1,300 in today’s money — for information about his whereabouts, but nothing turned up. Police across the Pacific Northwest were asked to be on the lookout for Clark, who had partial paralysis on the right side, a “halting gait” and couldn’t use his right arm.
Then, on May 10, 1986, loggers clear-cutting an isolated section of Portland discovered the remains of a man who had been dead for at least a half-century.
Near the skeleton, investigators found an 1888 V nickel, a 1919 penny, a pocket watch, leather shoes, wire-rimmed glasses, a Fraternal Order of Eagles pocket knife and four tokens with the inscription “D&P.” A historian told The Oregonian in 1986 that those where likely tavern tokens, which were awarded in card games and could be used to buy food or alcohol.
Police also found a corroded revolver, and an expended .32-caliber bullet. A single shot had entered the skull at the temple. Medical examiners at the time said it was the oldest case they ever had. They ruled the unknown man’s death a suicide. Investigators were skeptical that his identity would ever be learned.
Clark’s name surfaced a couple of days later when a woman told detectives it might be her grandfather.
The woman, Dorothy Willoughby, said Clark had once been the town marshal from Linnton, which was annexed by Portland in the early 20th century and is near the secluded ravine where the man chose to end his life. She said her grandfather went missing around 1920 and was said to have been depressed over medical problems and sometimes used a cane.
The granddaughter’s hunch, however, wasn’t enough to solve the disappearance. She died in 1991.
When Vance discovered a file about Clark and the 1986 remains, she realized the case number might be in the storage unit where the remains of unidentified people are kept. “And I was like: ‘Oh my gosh, I still have this guy. This is fantastic,’” she said.
With the advances in DNA, she sent a sample in 2011 to the Center for Human Identification at the University of North Texas, which also manages the database of missing and unidentified people. Now they are searching for more of Clark’s descendants.
“I don’t like the word closure, I kind of think resolution,” said Janet Franson, a regional NamUs administrator whose territory includes Oregon.