Officials identify body of man found in Park County in 1974, believe case stems from a suicide pact
FRISCO — The Park County Coroner’s Office and the DNA Doe Project have determined that a man who was found dead near Grant, Colorado, in 1974 is Anthony John Armbrust III, a metaphysical church leader from California who died as a result of an apparent suicide pact.
On Tuesday morning, Park County Coroner David Kintz Jr. and representatives with the DNA Doe Project held a press conference in Fairplay to formally identify the body of a man found in the area in 1974. For the past 46 years, the man’s name and the nature of his death remained a total mystery for officials, but thanks to emergences in the field of forensic genetic genealogy over recent years, the community now has new insight into how and why Armbrust died.
“The fact that we were able to use such new technology and new science to get this accomplished means the world,” Kintz said. “… For those of us that work in forensics, our ultimate job is to speak for those who can’t speak for themselves. It’s a passion of mine, and it’s a passion of everyone who works in this field. They’re superheroes; they’re the unsung superheroes behind the scenes who don’t get the flashy press coverage, but they do the job that needs to be done.
“I can’t even describe, because I’ve never been in this situation, the emotions the families must feel after so many years of having questions.”
On Feb. 10, 1974, hikers discovered a body off County Road 62 near Grant, in treacherous terrain on the Park County side of Guanella Pass. The Park County Sheriff’s Office and coroner got to work the following day trying to identify the man, who was found at the bottom of steep rocks, partially frozen in snow and ice.
They conducted a search of the area looking for personal effects that could lead to his identification, but nothing but his clothing was recovered. A subsequent autopsy collected dental records and partial fingerprints, which were compared against all missing person cases in the Colorado area. But no leads emerged.
By late March that year, the case had run cold. The man was interred at the Fairplay Cemetery in an unnamed grave, and the case remained unsolved.
Kintz said he picked up the case again in 2011, placing the information from the 1974 investigation into the National Crime Information Center, a database operated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and NamUS, a national missing and unidentified persons database. Again, no leads were developed.
But Kintz continued his work. In 2017, he interviewed the former sheriff and others who went up to find the body, and he decided to exhume the body to get a bone sample. The office submitted the sample to the FBI’s DNA lab in Quantico, Virginia, to run it against all criminal and missing persons cases. Once again, there were no leads.
Kintz’s first big break in the case came in 2018. While attending American Academy of Forensic Science meetings, he listened to an individual talk about the emerging science of forensic genealogy, and he realized it could be helpful in identifying the man in the case. He reached out to the DNA Doe Project, a nonprofit formed in 2017 to identify John and Jane Does — monikers given to unidentified individuals — using genetic genealogy.
The group began work on the project last year and was able to identify the man as Anthony John Armbrust III more than 46 years after his death. Kintz said Armbrust still has living family members in Arizona, including a daughter and granddaughter, who have been notified.
Through subsequent interviews with family members and others, officials determined that Armbrust was an aeronautical engineer and the leader of a “metaphysical” church in San Diego.
“They described him as a ‘guru,’” Kintz said.
It is believed that in 1973, he was newly married to his second wife, Renee Niles, and the two moved to Golden, Colorado.
Interviewees said Armbrust was suffering from a potentially terminal illness, described as emphysema. Shortly after the move, Armbrust sent a letter to members of the California church asking them to come to Colorado and collect his belongings, including his German shepherd puppy. The members of the church did as he asked, finding his apartment unoccupied and collecting his remaining belongings.
Kintz said officials believe Armbrust and his wife came to Colorado “to be taken by God” in the Colorado mountains, a suicide pact spurred by his failing health. His death was caused by multiple blunt force traumas, and officials believe that he either purposefully jumped from the rocks above or fell while trying to make his way up. Both circumstances would be considered a suicide, Kintz said. He was 45 years old when he died.
But as answers surrounding the man’s death are finally coming to light, other questions are only now emerging.
“After almost five decades, we’ve been able to identify Anthony,” Kintz said. “But that has opened up a new question, mainly that of Renee, his wife. … At this time, it appears to us that Renee Armbrust is still missing to this day.”
Preliminary searches of the area where Anthony Armbrust was found have already been conducted with no results. The Park County Sheriff’s Office is expected to conduct more searches of the area, but at this time, the assumption is that she died alongside Armbrust. She was 25 years old at the time of her disappearance.
“Going off of the interviews we have about the suicide pact, the general opinion of all people associated is that she most likely perished with him somewhere or nearby, but that’s all we have to go on right now,” Kintz said.
Tracing John Doe
Representatives with the DNA Doe Project also were at the press conference to discuss the process they used to help determine Armbrust’s identity, an effort that included DNA sequencing in laboratories throughout the United States and subsequent detailed searches of public DNA databases.
The group was brought in to help during the summer of 2019 and began tracking possible leads. In December of that year, the Park County Coroner’s Office shipped Armbrust’s samples to Astrea Forensics in Santa Cruz, California, for DNA extraction. Those samples then were sent to HudsonAlpha Discovery in Huntsville, Alabama, for whole genome sequencing, the process of mapping out an individual’s unique DNA. The sequencing results then were sent to Belton, Texas, where Saber Investigations developed a DNA profile for possible matches.
Once the kit was completed, the DNA Doe Project was able to upload it to GedMatch, an online DNA and genealogy database where individuals who have had their DNA tested through companies like 23andMe and Ancestry.com can upload their results. Potential matches began pouring in, but Armbrust’s Jewish heritage made the search for ancestral candidates difficult.
“The majority of our John Doe’s matches were of German and Hungarian Jewish descent,” said Marry Koski, team leader for the DNA Doe Project. “The challenging part of building these family trees is that many of these matches and families changed their names during the early 1900s to avoid persecution. … We also learned in researching Jewish genealogy that many of the records in Eastern Europe were destroyed. Sometimes, all you have to go on when you’re researching Jewish genealogies is the towns these people lived in.”
Still, strong possibilities emerged. But before researchers could be certain, they had to trace the family line of who they believed to be Armbrust’s great grandparents all the way to modern day.
“We had to find all of that couple’s children, grandchildren and great grandchildren,” Koski said. “It took some time, and it took work, because these are people who were born in the 1850s and 1860s, and sometimes it’s not easy to find those records. … After building down to be a great-grandchild, we found who we believed to be our candidate.”
The group was able to locate one of Armbrust’s cousins who agreed to take a DNA test. The test revealed the two were indeed related and provided researchers with final confirmation that Armbrust was their man.
“He is not an unknown marker in a cemetery now,” Kintz said. “He has a name. He has a story. He has a family. We always knew he did. But now we can share it with people; we can share it with the family. So he’s not alone anymore.”
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