They called him “Unknown Boy.”
The blue-eyed hitchhiker with olive skin drowned when the car he was riding in crashed through the rail of a bridge and plunged into the Cahaba River in Bibb County, Alabama, on March 27, 1961, according to an FBI report. The driver survived the crash and offered a few details about the boy but not enough to identify him.
The boy had a pack of Pall Mall cigarettes on him, a Timex watch on his wrist and a Miraculous Medal of the Immaculate Conception tied around his neck with cotton twine. He had been hitchhiking through Alabama, possibly en route to California, but not much else was known about him.
Local authorities tried for weeks to identify him and find his family. A viewing was held for him at a local funeral home, where many town leaders came to pay their respects. The child was buried in a coffin that local residents paid for, under a white marble headstone that read, “Unknown in Life but Recognized in Death.”
Last week, more than 60 years later, the mystery was solved, the product of advances in DNA technology and genealogy. The boy was 15-year-old Daniel Paul Armantrout, known as Danny, according to a local coroner and genealogists, and confirmed in an interview by a surviving brother.
The case underscores the potential of forensic genealogy, in which DNA samples are run through genealogical databases to locate matches. Sleuths from Identifinders International, a company that uses the method to help solve cold cases, ran genetic material from the boy through a genealogy website beloved by hobbyists called GEDmatch. It was a site that detectives in recent years used to help solve the case of the Golden State Killer, who murdered 13 people and raped dozens of women in the 1970s and 1980s.
In Centreville, Alabama, local officials said they never stopped thinking about the mysterious young hitchhiker who lost his life in their county.
“It just means the world to this town that we were able to solve this case,” said CW West, Bibb County’s elected coroner. “I lived a couple miles from the cemetery Danny was buried in. I passed by it all the time. Pretty much everybody here knew about this case.”
West spoke on the phone last week with an older brother of Danny’s, Don Hamilton, of Seminole, Florida. They both started crying.
Hamilton, 77, said in an interview that he, Danny and another brother, David, grew up in a severely abusive household. David, two years his senior, had also run away, and Hamilton hasn’t heard from him since.
Their alcoholic stepfather whipped their bare backs with a belt and burned their fingers with matches. The brothers went weekends at a time without food. Their mother told them she wished they had never been born, Hamilton said. The mother and stepfather are deceased.
Hamilton escaped as soon as he could, joining the Army at age 17.
Despite his childhood, Hamilton made a good life for himself. He had a 30-year career in the Army, retiring in 1989 as a sergeant major. He met his wife while stationed in Germany, fell in love and has been married for more than 40 years. He has two daughters and eight grandchildren. A high school dropout, he earned an associate’s degree in business management in the 1990s and was a nutrition coordinator for many years.
But a day didn’t pass, he said, that he didn’t wonder what had become of his two brothers. About David, the oldest. And about his younger brother, the polio-stricken and fragile Danny.
In 2016, the Center for Missing and Exploited Children helped the local authorities in exhuming the body of the unidentified Alabama boy, to see if modern DNA technology could help solve the mystery.
Researchers built a mitochondrial DNA profile and uploaded it into the Combined DNA Index System, a national database maintained by the FBI, but no matches to missing persons were made, Carol Schweitzer, a supervisor at the center, said in an email. The case again went dormant.
Earlier this year, Dr. Colleen Fitzpatrick, the founder and president of Identifinders International, contacted West, the new coroner, and they started working together to give the case another try. Advanced processing techniques that weren’t available in 2016 were now used to generate genetic data to make the match, Fitzpatrick said.
Forensic genealogy has its critics, who have privacy concerns about using genetic material to track down relatives in criminal cases. Some states, like Maryland and Montana, have recently made it harder for investigators to use the method.
In Maryland, cases will need a judge’s sign-off before using the method, and the law also requires that the technique be used only for serious crimes like murder and sexual assault. Montana’s law is narrower, ordering that government investigators obtain a search warrant before using a consumer DNA database, unless the consumer has waived the right to privacy.
Schweitzer, from the missing children’s center, calls the technique a powerful investigative tool that “has breathed new life” into challenging cases.
“We have learned that a good number of our unidentified juveniles were never reported missing to police, for countless reasons, so relying solely on searching missing persons reports is not sufficient enough,” she said.
Since 2018, she said, the center has witnessed more than 32 cases of unidentified juveniles having their names returned as a result of genealogy efforts. She said the case of Danny Armantrout represented the oldest unidentified juvenile case the center had known to be resolved.
The last time Hamilton saw Danny was when he was home from military service for a couple of weeks during Christmas break in 1960, shortly before the youngest brother ran away. The two went into the mountains by their rural home in Tennessee to go squirrel shooting, one of their favorite activities. One of their only activities, actually. They were dirt poor. There was no TV. No phone. Few other kids around.
Hamilton said that Danny didn’t say anything to him about running away but that he knew Danny made the same calculation the older brothers had already made: They could stick around and take the abuse or try life on their own.
“It wasn’t much of a choice,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton, and the town that laid the boy to rest the first time, will say goodbye again by dedicating a grave cover, this one with a name attached and this time with a loved one present.
The granite slab will have the name of the brothers’ biological father, Armantrout. Hamilton was the name of their abusive stepfather, Hamilton said. It’s too late for a name change for himself, he said, as he is well established in the world as Don Hamilton, but he wanted his little brother to escape the name, at least at his grave site.
Hamilton plans to drive his motor home to Centreville for the ceremony, scheduled for Dec. 28, which would have been Danny’s 76th birthday.
“I’m sad because I won’t ever get to see my brother alive,” he said. “My heart feels good I’m going to be able to bless his grave site.”