“A Skeleton in the Closet: A Genealogy Mystery” Chapters 1 & 2


At the sound of something brushing gently against my apartment door, I was terrified.

It was not the kind of fear you get when you’re on a roller coaster, where the blood rushes through your veins and clears out your head.

It was that deep, gnawing, unending fear that kicked me in the stomach and made me dread the phone ringing and picking up the mail. I had long since been screening calls and had told all my friends to talk to the machine. The bill collectors from the credit card companies would never leave messages, and just hung up.

But now I was terrified because I knew what that sound meant.

My landlord had left a message on my answering machine just a few minutes earlier.

I knew.

I knew that the scratching and movement on the other side was an eviction notice being taped on my door.

I knew that I had run out of time, and I knew I had only a few more weeks to come up with a sum of money that no temp job would ever pay.

I knew I couldn’t ask my parents to take me in any longer. They had settled in to their new retirement community, and were so crammed for space that their walk-in closet was now their computer-room-slash-home-office. I had only once in my life used the option of living with my parents, and only now realized how wonderful it had been to have that available to me.

My breath was instinctively held. I released it slowly and quietly, then waited and listened to be sure the hall was empty, and that my landlord had left the stairwell.

Tears started to form in my eyes, and I scolded myself.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m no coward. I knew I was one of countless people who had been in this situation before, so I had nothing to really be ashamed of.

But the more my mind told me not to be upset, the more a few tears fell down my cheeks.

As I pulled the notice from the door, I took care to close it behind me as quietly as possible. I still didn’t want to face my landlord right then.

I fell down and dropped onto the couch. There was no real reason to read the notice, but I opened it automatically, and unfolded the crinkled corners. Sobs started out of me, and I dropped the papers to the floor.

I looked at the chair on the other side of the room, at the brand new set of bagpipes sitting in their case. I had ordered them back before my former company’s mass-layoff, and had waited for almost three months before they arrived. Then it had been several more months before I could play them with any skill at all. I had fought to find practice time in my crazy work schedule, and was happy to have found a quiet spot down the road from my old office building where I could run off at lunchtime and play without disturbing anyone.

That, as they say, was then.

Now I looked at them and saw a valuable asset that could be sold to one of the other students in my bagpipe band, and easily pay for more than a month’s rent and groceries.

All that work, all that time, for nothing.

Now, even though I felt like I was on the verge of being voted into the band as a full playing member, I would have to give it all up and wait. Wait until I had another job, wait another year or more until I saved up money to buy another set (which would by then surely cost $1,000 more), and wait until I had learned the band’s new playlist requirements for membership audition (these would certainly have changed by that time, too).

Realistically, if I sold them now, I would probably be giving up bagpiping for several years, maybe forever.

Silently, from behind the tears, my thoughts turned into a prayer.

I know we haven’t talked in a long time God, but if You can do anything, I could really use some help here. I don’t know what to do or what I’m supposed to do. I don’t know what You want me to do. I’ve always thought You must have a plan for me, but I could sure use a hint right now what it is.

I didn’t expect an answer right away. After all, everyone always says that God doesn’t work like that.

Perhaps it was because I was so caught up in the sound of my own crying that I didn’t hear the first few rings of the phone. It must have rung, because the machine was answering.

“Veronica, if you’re there, pick up. It’s me, Daisy.”

Quickly, I wiped the tears from my eyes and grabbed a tissue to wipe my nose. During my last (much shorter) encounter with the unemployment line, Daisy had thrown some freelance work my way, and she never said “pick up” unless it was urgent. Thankfully, while I was working to disguise the sniffling and hoarse voice that would have been a dead giveaway to the tears, Daisy kept talking to my machine.

“I’ve found something for you that could bring some money in. I don’t know how much, but it’s something right now, and I think you’d be perfect for this…“

Finally feeling prepared to pick up the phone, I answered. “Sorry, Daisy. I’m here. It just took me a minute to find the cordless phone.”

As soon as I heard my own voice, I knew that I still sounded nasal and stuffy, and my gravelly voice gave away that I had been crying.

“You okay?” Daisy asked.

“I’m fine. I was just watching a good movie.”

Either Daisy believed the fib, or was too much of a friend to pursue the subject, and let it drop.

“Well, I’ve got this old friend of mine from my DJ days in St. Louis. She’s a nurse now and lives in Montana, and she needs some genealogy and local historical research done. I know you helped me out with that before, so I thought you could make some money doing the same thing for her. I googled it, and professional genealogists make some good money.”

“Daisy, I don’t have the certifications for high pay. I’m just an amateur.”

“She doesn’t care. She was impressed by my description of your work, and wants you. She’s willing to pay pretty well, too – now that she inherited some money from her Grandfather.”

I stood silently for a moment, unsure of things. God doesn’t work this fast, does He?

“You still there?” asked Daisy.

“Oh… yeah. I’m here.”

“Well, it would involve some travel, but you would get reimbursed pretty quickly. I don’t know if your finances are up to it right now, but I figured I had to at least throw it your way. It’s a little weird, but after going to that Star Trek convention with you, I know you’re fairly comfortable with weird.”

“How do you mean, ‘weird’?”

“Well, my friend Rose’s Grandfather passed away a few months ago, and she was going through his things to figure out what to do with them, and found a wooden chest in the closet. Inside the chest was a human skeleton.”

“And in what way does this… very interesting situation lend itself to genealogy?” I asked.

“Well, the police originally thought the skeleton was one of a pair of missing hikers from way back when, but now they’re saying it might be one of Rose’s relatives.”

“So she’s from a rather dysfunctional family, is that it?”

“No. That’s just it – from everything I’ve ever known about her, Rose’s family is kind of like one of those 1950’s Leave it to Beaver types. I can’t imagine her Grandfather living with a dead body in his closet.”

“Well, I have to admit,” I said, “this certainly ranks high on the weirdness scale.”

Daisy gave a mild laugh. “Oh, yeah! Anyway, they need to have more information on her family tree for the DNA identification process. And Rose wants to find out more about her family’s relationship to this missing hikers thing. Even though the police say it’s not possible, Rose is sure it’s related somehow.”

“But the police must have reasons for ruling that out already, mustn’t they?”

“Maybe, but Rose and I aren’t very confident in their work. We both think they’re typical small-town cops who are stumbling around on a case that’s too big for them.”

After a pause, Daisy continued. “So, what do you say? A week or two of paid travel to the lovely wide-open state of Montana, with all expenses paid?”

“We-e-ell…” I walked over to the couch, and picked up the eviction notice. It gave me four weeks to find the money. Uncertainly, I answered, “I’d have to get paid before the first of next month.”

“Done.” Daisy was obviously sure enough of the situation to answer so firmly. I was feeling better about the job.

Later, as I hung up the phone, my confidence slipped away. This was more of a job for a professional private investigator, and I’m just an amateur genealogist. My stomach knotted up. Only my faith that this was God sending something my way, kept me from picking up the phone to call Daisy and back out of the job.

Even though Daisy had told me to call right away, I took a few minutes to compose myself a bit more so could be sure that my voice no longer showed hints of my previous tears. I also had to spend some time online researching how much genealogists get paid.

The amount shocked and inspired me. The professional’s rate was very tempting, especially in light of my finances, but I was determined to be honest and charge the lady an amateur’s rate.

The number Daisy gave me was the hospital where Rose worked. After several minutes of being caught in long-distance voicemail Hell (during which I futilely said “human being please”, and pressed “1” and “2” more times than I could count), I finally got through the corporate communications barrier to speak to a human being. Several more minutes of being kept on hold passed.

Finally, Rose Allendale herself came on the line.

Rose was very nice when I apologized for calling her at work, and insisted on talking about the case in spite of the numerous interruptions obviously caused by people walking up to her desk. Before the conversation ended, I had gotten down most of the available facts.

The “missing hiker thing”, as Daisy had referred to it, involved a missing newlywed couple who had been hiking in a forest preserve in the late 1920s. Just before they had disappeared, Rose’s Grandfather, Emory Allendale, had taken their photograph. At the time, he was working as a nature photographer for the federal government. Later, the hikers’ campsite was discovered with everything intact and no evidence for either of them. Rewards had been offered and search parties sent out, but no trace of either one was ever found.

Recently, Rose’s Grandfather had passed on. He had lived most of his adult life in a small house in Bears Falls, Montana, near where the hikers had gone missing, and a human skeleton had been found hidden in a trunk he owned. The police had told her that the skeleton was a male, based on some of the bones. The newspapers had also said that there appeared to be a gunshot wound in the skull, but not trace of an exit wound for the bullet, and no bullet was found in the skull or in the trunk. Since no one else had been reported missing in that part of the country before, police were theorizing that this was half of the missing hiker pair, and that Emory had shot him. They were busy x-raying, sonar-scanning, dog-sniffing, and digging up much of the ground around Emory’s old home in search of the woman’s remains, in hopes of finding her, too.

Rose, however, didn’t think her Grandfather had killed anyone or that the police would find any other remains. She was convinced that someone had somehow put the trunk there after her Grandfather died. She thought it would have to have been done during the time when she had been going through his possessions, wrapping up heirlooms and donating anything no one else in the family said they wanted.

Rose also said that she remembered hearing her Grandfather once say that he had never fired a gun in his life. It was just a couple of years ago, and she could think of no reason why he would have lied at the time about that. Rose wanted to prove her Grandfather’s innocence, but felt the police were too set on their theory of the events to consider hers, and Rose couldn’t shake the feeling that they were hiding something from her.

Even if it cost her all her savings and even if it wasn’t what she wanted to hear, Rose said, she wanted to know the real truth. She was launching her own investigation, because she had to know if her Grandfather had killed anyone, and not spend the rest of her life wondering if the police had just rushed to conclusions.

Since I had come recommended by a friend, Rose offered to pay whatever the fee was, including any travel expenses that might be incurred. She wanted to have me find out as much information as I could about the missing couple, and also to work with the police and forensics people to verify the man’s identity and to get as much historical information as possible about the case.

When I tried to assure her that travel might not be necessary (most of my Genealogy was done online), Rose was adamant that she preferred me to be nearby during the investigation, and that she was willing to pay for any travel expenses. In spite of my persistent reminders that I was not a detective, she was insistent that Daisy had given me the perfect references.

Since this was possibly a career-making case, and was far better than the miniscule amount on my unemployment check, I agreed to spend a couple of weeks on-site, but insisted that I would need to take at least a day to get myself up to speed on the case and do any preliminary research on the missing couple’s descendants.

I always hate talking money when I freelance, so the next few minutes of discussion felt awkward. Still, she agreed pretty quickly to my fee, and even insisted on paying a higher rate. She was determined enough that I was concerned my protestations would soon become impolite. We agreed to meet up at her home in two more days.

Energized and wanting to get all the facts straight and written down, before I forgot any of my conversation with her, I hopped on the computer and started Googling and typing.

It didn’t take long to learn more about the case. The basic facts were posted in several web-sites that showed up after only a quick “Google” search. Frustratingly, there was a book listed on Amazon.com about the case that had yet to be published, but no publication date was listed; this usually meant that it would not be released for some months yet.

After printing out a few web pages that seemed rather promising at first glance, I did some quick checking on Ancestry.com to get myself started on the descendants.

Thankfully, the missing couple had an unusual last name and there would be fewer “hits” to sort through. George and Betty Darmok hadn’t had any children, but George did have had one sister, according to news stories. The police were hoping to use mitochondrial DNA to identify the skeleton. If the sister was still living or had any daughters of her own, the “X” chromosome in the male skeleton could be matched up to the “X” chromosome in the living female relatives, since “X” chromosomes are passed down through the female line.

Because the police were also looking for George Darmok’s relatives, I decided to start by giving the police a call and trying to share information.

I guessed that Rose might have made her disapproval of the police department known and that there might be bitter feelings about the case, but Rose had also said that one of the officers was more open and helpful than the rest, so I decided to call him before leaving for Montana.

“We already have people working on the genealogy, Miss Heldin,” Officer Parker said. “I don’t think I understand what you’re trying to accomplish.”

As inoffensively as I could, I tried to re-state her client’s position. “Rose Allendale is paying me to look into it. She wants to have another pair of eyes looking at the missing man’s family tree and at the original case itself.”

“I can understand that,” said Officer Parker. “It doesn’t hurt to have another investigator looking at the facts, and I certainly don’t mind sharing my information, but I don’t quite understand what a genealogist is doing investigating this.”

“I was referred by a friend of a friend,” I said. “My expertise is in comparatively recent historical research in the United States, especially the eras between the Civil War and the second World War. I’m more than just a record-chaser, I’m also a historian, and I like to put a person’s life into a historical perspective. Besides, I’ve already voiced my own doubts about my duties to my client, but she seems rather set on it.”

Officer Parker laughed lightly. “Well, Rose certainly is a bit quick to jump on things. I don’t mind, though. She has a certain way about her that makes her easily forgiven… Well, Miss Heldin, don’t expect to find any corrupt cops planting evidence or anything. Our department was one of less than a dozen in the entire country to earn a Certification of Integrity.”

“Oh, that’s certainly not why I’m working on this, Officer Parker! I’m only hoping to add another pair of eyes and approach the topic from a different angle. Hopefully, I’ll find something your people don’t. If there’s one thing I’ve found to be true of genealogy, it’s that more people working on the same problem can only help.”

“In police work, sometimes too many cooks in the kitchen can spoil the broth, ma’am.” His words were harsh, but his manner was too good-natured for me to take offense. “I simply want you to understand that I am going to share any information with you that I am able to, but I won’t be able to divulge every aspect of the case. Some things have to be kept quiet in order to do better police work. I also want to make it clear that we’re not a library you can keep coming back to. We may be a small town by your Chicago standards, but wedo have other work and I don’t want your investigation to take over our offices.”

“Oh, I certainly understand, Officer, and I certainly don’t want to make a pest of myself at all. If you’ll just help me hook up with whoever is doing your background research, I’ll be glad to get out of your hair.”

“They’re already done with the research on this case and they’ve moved on to another one, but I’ll be glad to fax you copies of what that investigator gave me.”

“Oh…done so soon?” I asked. “I thought that the skeleton was found less than a week ago.”

“Yes, but they apparently didn’t have to look hard for a relative. The story is famous enough that a lot of reporters and authors did that for us long ago.”

“Ah, I see.” I was glad to hear that there was ample literature somewhere on the story and that someone still had copies of some of it. It also meant I would be spending a lot of time researching while en route, however. “Well, I certainly do appreciate your help, Officer Parker. If you’ve got a pen I’ll give you my fax number.”


The tiny town of Bears Falls, where Emory Allendale had lived and died, was nowhere near an airport, so I was left with the choice of driving or taking a train.

Driving was pretty much out of the question. My car was already near the end of its life, and I was sure driving it all the way from my suburban Chicago home to Rose’s home in Montana would be too much, even for my antique Nissan “Rice-Burner.”

Although Rose had made it clear that car rental was an option, I realized that driving would substantially cut down my reading time and ability to work out the basics of the case, so mass-transit seemed to be the preferred choice.

The train was fine by me, anyway, since the new post-9/11 security measures made airline travel too time-consuming and aggravating for my tastes.

Online travel sites quickly determined that the best method of getting there without spending too many hours on a bus or too much money up front, involved taking a train most of the way, then renting a car. There was an Amtrak station within spitting distance of my destination, and I estimated that just the cost of repeatedly filling up the gas tank and spending only one night in a motel would make the train ticket and car rental well worth it.

I tried to avoid enjoying the beautiful scenery that kept popping up outside the window as the train lolled its way through the pleasant Midwestern landscape, and concentrate on my reading and research.

I started with Officer Parker’s files, my notes from my conversation with Rose, and my online search printouts, since they were the quickest and most condensed version of the various facts and didn’t require an internet connection.

On June 17, 1928, a newlywed couple named George and Betty Darmok disappeared. George had been 21 at the time, and Betty 17 years old. The couple had previously told various friends that they wanted to spend a month camping out and hiking in the beautiful preserves and forests of what was now called Kootenai National Park.

Only a few days after they began their hike, they returned back to the Great House that acted as a combination general store, restaurant, and hotel for the many tourists of the day. Most were not as nature-loving as the young couple, and would only stay long enough to see the unusual rock formations near the Great House, but some would brave an overnight or more in the nearby camping area.

The pair stocked up on some supplies, and George was overheard at the cash register insisting that various items other hikers assured them were necessary, would be a waste of money and he refused to buy any of them. While in the Great House, they had their photograph taken by a young Emory Allendale, Rose’s Grandfather, who was there taking photographs of the park. It was the last known verified sighting of the pair, and young Mr. Allendale was able to precisely note the time of day in a later newspaper interview, because he had not yet made his long trek to the creek to develop his film in the water, and the sun was about to go down. Like others who overheard the couple talking, Mr. Allendale was surprised at George’s insistence that they would head out to hike more that evening, in spite of the late hour.

The couple’s absence was first noted the next day, when a Trail Officer came across their campsite not far from the Great House. It was eerie, he claimed, and felt the way a ghost town must feel. Coffee had been set over a fire and the pot was almost burnt dry from being left on too long. Breakfast was still on two plates, half-eaten. Clothing and personal items were set out as if someone would be returning any moment to start their day. As much as he walked around the site and called out, no one answered. He soon realized that shoeprints led to a nearby stream, but did not return back toward the campsite.

The Trail Officer quickly made his way to the Great House and sounded the alarm. Police were called, search teams organized, but not one single clue as to what happened to the couple ever surfaced.

In the years since, a couple of people claimed to be Betty or George, including one lady who was hiking the trail with a tour group. After hearing the story of the missing couple, she calmly stated that she was Betty Darmok, and that she had killed her husband and ran off and assumed a new identity. Although everyone in the tour group agreed that this woman existed and had actually said all this, she disappeared immediately after returning to the Great House and was never identified or heard from again.

At the time the couple disappeared, one newspaper reported that George Darmok had a married sister named Helen Gorn who lived in Utah. Helen was quoted in the papers as saying that her brother had “a bit of an Irish temper” when drunk, and she hoped “he hasn’t gone and done anything stupid.”

Many years after the hikers’ disappearance, Helen’s daughter came forward. Apparently, Helen and her husband Oliver had separated years before, and Oliver had taken their daughter Rebecca with him. Also, he had apparently passed on at some point before his wife’s death. Rebecca then went to court to have George declared legally dead, and be named the recipient of George Darmok’s estate. This estate was not much, and consisted only of some “small furniture” and what was described in one newspaper article as “personal items and family heirlooms of small value.” Copies of marriage and Social Security records filed some years later indicated that Rebecca Gorn was now to be found under the name Rebecca Astenbaum, and that she lived in Libby, Montana, very near Kootenai National Park.

The abundance of newspaper information certainly explained why the police felt so comfortable with their prospective mitochondrial DNA. Still, I felt like I should be more professional about my research. I remembered another Genealogist (it was my mother, actually) saying that a good Genealogist always tries to get at least two reliable sources for every piece of information before believing it to be a fact. While the newspaper articles were good sources, there was only one article in the file about Rebecca, and the other documents about her were all about her adult life. There was no other verification that she was a blood relative of George Darmok, or that Helen Gorn ever had any children. Actually, other than that one newspaper article, there was no other verification in the police files that Helen was even George’s sister.

I was a little irritated. If I did pursue this line of inquiry, Vital Records Departments invariably took at least 10 days on a “rush” job, and those usually cost a lot more to get. Still, if Rose Allendale was willing to pay the extra fee, it might be possible. I felt bad about asking her to pay money for double-checking what would seem to be fairly well-established to most people.

Also, the fact that Helen was quoted in the one article as saying that George had a temper was something Rose would probably want to hear. If nothing else, it gave strength to her theory that her Grandfather didn’t kill the couple, and left open the possibility that the husband had killed the wife, then either killed himself or went into hiding.

According to the recent information on her, Rebecca Astenbaum now owned a newspaper called the “Kootenai Gazette,” which she had purchased with her entire inheritance. That would make her simple enough to find and contact.

I considered the Utah angle. If Helen had really lived in Utah, she might actually have been Mormon. Especially if any of her children were Mormon, someone in her family would have some information on her family tree available online with the Latter Day Saints (or “LDS”) databases.

I was getting a bit irritated at myself for having agreed to leave home to do on-site research so soon after starting on the case. I was sure that I would have a dozen more possibilities I would want to look up online before I got off the train.

And then there were a couple of other details that troubled me. The only official government documents in all of the papers Officer Parker had faxed over were the missing couple’s birth certificates and marriage license. There were no court papers declaring them dead. But most troubling of all was the dates stamped by the various county clerks on all of the official original copies, although barely legible after being copied and faxed, still unquestionably showed them all to have been requested at least three years ago. Other records in the police files also seemed to indicate someone had been looking into this “Cold Case” for some time; from the name on the “Requestor” line of at least three of the different documents, it looked like that someone was named “Enkel.”

Even though this might all be completely innocent, my instincts told me otherwise.

The more I thought about it, the more I felt like there were a lot of areas the police had left unchecked and questions that were still unanswered, and I felt less guilty about having to charge money for my research expenses.

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