Kristene Feldhaus entered the Yolo County Coroner’s Office on Tuesday and couldn’t hold back her excitement. As she walked in, she paused and laughed. “Should I go in skipping?” she said.
The stay-at-home mother traveled to Woodland from Iowa this week specifically to make a visit to the Coroner’s Office. Feldhaus was there to pick up the ashes of a man whose remains sat unidentified for over 30 years. Most people around the area know him as the Tower Bridge Hero. During her trip to the Coroner’s Office, Feldhaus called him Dad.
Feldhaus’ last memories of James Wray Miller are hazy — the last time she saw him, she was only 3. But she has committed to memory her family’s recollection: He had a good heart, a drinking problem and a rap sheet. And until Feldhaus’ sleuthing, her father’s whereabouts were unknown.
“I knew he had to be dead or in prison, he couldn’t just be out there after all these years,” she said.
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How Feldhaus came to discover Miller’s fate and how he ended up in Woodland was a discovery three decades in the making — something that almost collapsed into the pages of a cold-case anthology.
And just like any good mystery, how Feldhaus came to reconnect with the memory of her father is filled with mistakes, lucky breaks and the newest ingredient to any good story: DNA testing.
The Bridge Hero
It started with a good heart.
No one’s sure why on Sept. 19, 1987, a bridge tender decided to override the safety features of the Tower Bridge as the Matthew McKinley tour boat passed beneath.
At the controls, Mike Foster Souza manually shut off the automatic bells and crossing arms that would have warned approaching vehicles the bridge was up. In a matter of seconds a truck carrying three people drove off the eastern approach and into the Sacramento River. The truck didn’t even have time to brake.
The driver of the truck, Pati Fink, was found dead in her seat hours after the accident. Chris Whitaker, who was riding in the bed of the truck, was pulled aboard the tour boat and survived. The body of a third passenger, James M. Shaughnessy, washed up two days later.
“We were just watching ... the bridge goes up and the car goes off,” D.J. Enzminger told The Bee at the time. “My wife and I were at the bow of the boat and here comes this car sailing right out into the river.”
He also saw a man jump into the dark waters after them, never to be seen again.
That John Doe was discovered by fishermen three days later and taken to the Yolo County morgue for identification.
As time passed, details of the tragedy emerged one by one. Souza was discovered to have a blood-alcohol level of .18, double what was allowed at the time. He was fired by Caltrans, the bridge’s operator, pleaded no contest to involuntary manslaughter and spent most of his one-year sentence in jail after violating his work-release deal.
Quickly after the fourth body was found, it was identified as Daniel Joseph Read, 32, a transient. The Yolo County Coroner’s Office said they relied on a birth certificate in the man’s pocket and a 17-year-old living on the streets who ID’d the corpse.
Soon after, they cremated the body. No fingerprints and no X-rays were taken of the body.
But Read wasn’t a transient — or dead. He was found living in Missouri, his papers stolen years before.
A second death certificate was issued to the brother of Anthony Curtis Keith. But a missing person’s report tied to the second name turned out to be a con artist in search of a quick way to erase his trail.
An “embarrassed” department endured weeks of scrutiny and a grand jury investigation that eventually forced the chief deputy coroner into retirement. He blamed the multiple blunders on his job’s stress. The sheriff told The Bee the error could have been “a discipline problem, such as laziness.”
The Bridge Hero’s story picks back up in the early 2000’s with Laurel Weeks, the deputy coroner in Yolo County.
Identifying John and Jane Does is Weeks’ secondary job. Whatever extra time she could find at the office, she spent going through the remains of the nearly two dozen unidentified bodies on file.
In 2007, after some digging, Weeks discovered a blood sample of the Tower Bridge Hero had been sent to a lab in 1987. The lab closed, but Weeks managed to get in contact with its former director. He had taken the blood sample with him to his new lab, Forensic Analytical in Hayward.
Weeks obtained the blood sample and filed it in a U.S. Department of Justice’s system that tries to match unidentified people with reports of missing people — no match.
In 2011, Weeks came across a system called the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, NamUs for short. NamUs is a national storehouse for DNA and other forensic information related to missing and unidentified person cases throughout the United States.
She put in the information of all of her Does — including the Tower Bridge Hero — and hoped for a match.
For 31 years, neither the police, the FBI nor the family had seen or heard from James Wray Miller. Feldhaus always had an inkling that her father was probably dead.
Miller had a litany of petty crimes on his record, including striking a cop in Ames, Iowa — but his alleged robbery of the nearby Randall-Story State Bank on Aug. 8, 1987, for $2,000 was not likely to result in another light sentence. He had been late on his child support payments — Feldhaus believed robbing the bank was his last-ditch effort to make the payments and get back into his kids’ lives.
Four days after a girlfriend snitched to police, Miller left Ames with his car and a few checks from his parents’ home and disappeared into the night. He headed west.
Feldhaus said that some FBI detectives told her that her father was most likely living somewhere else. But she believed that Miller would have contacted his brother, to whom she said he was close. The fact that he never did was uncharacteristic of him.
So in 2017, Feldhaus decided that she wanted to search for her father. Although she didn’t have much of a relationship with her father — her mother kicked him out when she was 3 years old — she wanted peace of mind.
“That was my whole motivation behind this — it was for me, but more for grandma and letting her know if her son was alive or dead,” she said.
Feldhaus started by posting to a missing persons Facebook page. Group members pointed her to NamUs, and Feldhaus scrolled through unidentified men who died in the late 1980s.
Feldhaus said she noticed a man who had died in Yolo County in 1987 who had features that matched her father’s. Her father’s brother lived in California, she said. He had hitchhiked to California from Iowa on another occasion.
“It was like staring at your kid and wondering if they look like you — so I made many collages of this John Doe and dad,” she said.
Family members weren’t supportive of Feldhaus’ find — even Miller’s brother didn’t believe that the man could be him.
“I looked at his ears, matched his brow, dimple, chin,” she said of the John Doe found in the system. “I was trying to find a strong indicator that I was wrong and I couldn’t find one.”
Sixteen other candidates could have been her father, Feldhaus said. With Weeks’ help, she submitted her DNA with that of her grandmother’s and the John Doe for testing.
Six months later, Feldhaus got the results — it was a match.
“I was shocked because after all these years — with the help of these awesome people — it just took me a little time of really being on the ball,” she said.
Miller’s mother passed away 20 days before the confirmation. Feldhaus said she regrets her grandmother couldn’t have learned Miller’s fate.
A visit to California
On Tuesday, she experienced the culmination of a year of hard work.
Feldhaus stood outside of the Coroner’s Office, one hand clutching a Kleenex, the other cradling her father’s remains, encased in a golden box inscribed with his name and his unofficial title: “The Bridge Hero.”
“I still can’t believe it,” she said. “It really means a lot. I spent the last year really working hard — and it wasn’t just me.”
Weeks, who said she had spent the last nine months calling Feldhaus at least once a week with updates about the DNA testing process, said she also felt a special gratification about crossing another John Doe off of her list after years of work.
“It was one of those cases — I never thought I’d find his ID,” she said. “It just validated all the work I put in to try to find him.”
That her father had died doing something so heroic for someone else made the conclusion of her search even better.
“Dad did a great thing,” Feldhaus said. “I’m so happy to know he died in such a manner — he made poor choices but he had a good heart.”