CATHLAMET — Richard Donald Arneson’s last known words came in the form of an ominous text message.
“My luck has run out,” Arneson, 62, told a friend on Feb. 5, 2016. After that, his loved ones had no idea what became of him until Wahkiakum County Prosecutor and Coroner Dan Bigelow called his relatives late last week to deliver bittersweet news: A Texas forensic lab had used DNA to confirm that Arneson was the man discovered on the bank of the Columbia River near Altoona in May 2016.
Bigelow was still trying to wrap his head around the unexpected news in a Jan. 17 phone interview. Over the last several months, he’s put considerable thought and effort into trying to find the man’s name.
“All that detective work. All that ‘2 a.m.-ing!’ Dr. Taylor was giddy when she told me,” Bigelow said, referring to the Washington state forensic anthropologist who helped Bigelow prepare the remains for DNA testing, and hired the forensic artist who drew the likeness of the man that was released to the public just last week. “I did a little happy dance.”
Against diminishing odds
It might seem odd for Bigelow to be happy about such a thing, but he doesn’t intend any disrespect. It’s just that a great many missing persons and unidentified remains cases never get solved, and the prospects definitely weren’t great for this one. It was dubious whether the man’s weathered, partial skeletal remains would yield any usable DNA. Even when there is DNA, it often takes months or even years before labs get any results. Leads in the case had all come to nothing. After seven months of searching, Bigelow and Taylor thought that if they got any new leads this month, they would come from the new drawing, not the Texas forensic lab.
“This came out of the blue.” Bigelow said. His last unidentified remains case involved another skeleton found on the banks of the Columbia in February 2013. It took almost exactly two years for the same Texas lab to confirm that the bones belonged to Molly Waddington, a 44-year-old Kelso woman who was last seen alive on March 14, 2012. Kelso Police are still investigating her death.
It was also surprising that Arneson, a West Seattle resident, turned up in Wahkiakum County, because he had no known ties to the area, and no known plans to visit.
“Without DNA, nobody would have been looking in this direction, and nobody would have found this guy,” Bigelow said.
All out of luck
Arneson’s family members in the Pacific Northwest had been searching for him, and provided the DNA samples that made it possible to identify him. When he told them the news, Bigelow said, “They were grateful for what closure we could offer.”
Bigelow still hasn’t had time to do much research on Arneson, and he can’t share some of what he does know, because Seattle Police are still investigating the disappearance. In hopes of generating new leads, Bigelow did reveal earlier this month that his John Doe’s dental records suggested he had fallen on hard times near the end of his life, and that he carried a woman’s ring and a keychain with a drawing of a little girl, and the name “DEBBIE” in his pocket.
“The best I can tell you without revealing other investigatory stuff is that I had heard he was well-to-do, and recently reduced in circumstances,” Bigelow said. “He did have a Debbie who was known to him, and dear to him, and predeceased him.”
According to an online missing persons database and several Seattle media accounts, Arneson was last seen at a Bank of America ATM in the Westwood shopping center in West Seattle on Feb. 4, 2016. Arneson’s friends and family got worried after he failed to show up for his job in Kent on Feb. 5. That day, a friend went to check on him at his West Seattle apartment, and discovered that he was gone, and the door was open. There were no signs of foul play, but police did open a missing persons case. Later that day, the same friend received the troubling text message.
According to court records, his landlord appears to have filed an eviction notice on Arneson at the end of February 2016. But it’s not clear whether that was because Arneson was already behind on rent at the time of his disappearance, or if he hadn’t paid rent because he had vanished.
The investigation continues
Arneson did apparently have an interest in hiking, and he was dressed for an outdoor adventure when he died. Bigelow said he probably went out into the woods voluntarily, and there are no signs of foul play at this point.
“It seems to me that if you are going to murder somebody, dressing them up in rain pants and throwing them in a river from West Seattle would be an overly complicated way of going about things,” Bigelow said. “You’d have to be an elaborate thinker to do things that way.”
Now, Bigelow will sign a death certificate, saying the place, time and manner of death are uncertain, and the Seattle detective who recently took over the case will continue trying to determine what caused Arneson to send that eerie message, and then to disappear.
“‘My luck has run out’ is a weird last set of words to say,” Bigelow reflected. “It sounds to me more like despair than fear.”