Collaboration between the Sacramento County Coroner’s Office, an Arizona detective and an online crime-solving community helped a man put to rest the 36-year-old case of his missing father.
Joaquin Islas had left his family in Arizona to work in California in 1970. Hector Islas, Joaquin’s son, began the search for his father in March 1980 at age 16. Phone calls from Joaquin had stopped earlier that year, and letters to his last known address were returned.
Hector said finding his father, who had divorced his mother and left to avoid paying child support, was a personal choice.
“I suppose we have a weird case here of the abandoned son saving the abandoner from a forgotten status,” Hector said. “It’s been a journey of forgiveness for me, finding out what happened to (my father), and coming to terms with the fact that he was doing the best he knew how.”
Hector started by filing missing-persons reports in Nogales, Ariz., and Los Angeles, in addition to sending inquiries to the Social Security Administration, and the Arizona and California offices of vital records. All the searches came up empty.
“When the communications stopped around 1980, we thought, ‘OK, it’s very likely that he’s not alive anymore,’ and we started investigating in areas where we knew he had lived before, like Fresno County and San Joaquin County,” Hector said.
Joaquin was found dead in an almond orchard in North Highlands on May 7, 1980, with a deck of cards, a comb and some spare change in his pockets. An autopsy revealed he most likely died of liver failure. Because he was not carrying identification, the Coroner’s Office was unable to determine who he was. It made a sketch and put the case into its “unidentified persons” registrar.
Ultimately, the rise of the internet allowed key evidence to come together.
In 2006, the Sacramento County Coroner’s Office created an unidentified persons page on its website, which included a sketch of Joaquin. In 2015, Tony Rodarte, an Arizona detective working with Hector to find his father posted the case details and a photo on missing persons websites.
In early 2016, “Websleuths,” an online forum on crimes, trials and unsolved cases, discussed the possible connection between the unidentified persons case in Sacramento County and the missing persons report filed by Rodarte. Hector found the discussion in March 2016, and contacted the Sacramento coroner.
The coroner gathered DNA from Joaquin’s corpse, and his son sent a DNA sample from his father for comparison. Using forensic technology, the office was able to determine the DNA matched.
On Sept. 16, 2016, Hector Islas finally learned what happened to his father. Since then, he has been working to spread his story.
“There were a lot of times I just doubted that I’d ever find him. It seemed all so daunting. But I did finally find him,” he said. “I want to give others hope that they can find their loved ones, too.”