WASHINGTON – Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean (search) said Tuesday that the search for the long-lost remains of his younger brother may be over with the discovery of bones, a sock, a pair of shoes and a bracelet buried in a Laotian rice field.
Charles Dean has been missing since 1974, when the 24-year-old University of North Carolina graduate was traveling through Southeast Asia with a companion, Neil Sharman of Australia.
A joint U.S.-Laotian team discovered remains earlier this month in Bolikhamxai Province in central Laos, said Larry Greer, spokesman for the Pentagon office in charge of POW and MIA issues. The remains have not been positively identified, but Dean said his family is confident they belong to his brother because of personal items found at the site.
As governor of Vermont, Howard Dean had visited the location last year to push for excavation. He said the discovery would be painful not only for him, his mother and his two surviving brothers, but families of every POW (search) and MIA.
"We greet this news with mixed emotions, but we are gratified we are now approaching closure," Dean told reporters in a brief statement after a candidate forum in Bedford, N.H. He did not take questions.
Sharman's brother, Ian Sharman, told the Australian Herald Sun on Tuesday that the two men had been handcuffed, executed, and their bodies thrown into a bomb crater. He told the newspaper that U.S. Army officials had informed him that one body had been found on top of the other, and two skulls, bones and shoes had been recovered.
Dean spokesman Jay Carson said the shoes resembled a pair worn by Charles Dean and the bracelet ironically was marked POW. Charles Dean wore the bracelet in support of finding missing prisoners of war, Carson said.
The Dean family has been trying to piece together the details surrounding Charles Dean's death for three decades.
Charles Dean graduated from North Carolina in 1972 and went to work on the anti-war campaign of Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern (search). After McGovern lost in a landslide to President Nixon, Charles Dean decided to travel around the world. He left New York for Seattle by car with a friend in the spring of 1973 and then traveled by freighter from Seattle to Japan. He later went on to Australia, where he lived on a ranch for nine months.
He and Sharman took off for Southeast Asia and were arrested by the communist Pathet Lao on Sept. 4, 1974, during a trip down the Mekong River in Laos. They apparently were suspected of being spies, although the U.S. and Australian governments said they were merely tourists and strongly protested their detention.
The two men were held in a small, remote prison camp for three months before they were believed to have been executed on Dec. 14 while driving toward Vietnam with their captors.
Charles Dean, although a civilian, was considered by the U.S. government to have been a prisoner of war. The effort to recover the bodies of Dean and Sharman was coordinated by the Defense Department's Joint Task Force Full Accounting, a Pentagon unit created 11 years ago to find remains of Americans missing in Indochina.
Based on accounts from local informants, the task force zeroed in on a flooded paddy field about 2.5 miles from the Vietnam border.
The family had been frustrated with delays in excavation of the suspected burial site when Dean visited the area last year. He was able to speak through a translator to one of two witnesses who claimed to have seen the bodies of Charles Dean and Sharman and remembered where they were buried.
At the time, Dean said he decided to make the trip after the death of his father because it would have been too difficult for Howard Dean Sr. to relive the pain of his son's death. Charles Dean's disappearance was gut-wrenching for everyone in the Dean family, but Howard Dean said his father took it especially hard.
At the time of Charles Dean's disappearance, the elder Dean was vice president of Reynolds Securities in New York and worked through his business and personal relationships to try to find his son. Howard Dean Sr. had attended Yale University with Charles S. Whitehouse, then the U.S. ambassador to Laos, and had developed connections in the region while living in Asia.
There are currently 1,875 Americans missing from the Vietnam conflict, including some civilians such as Dean, Greer said. He did not have a precise number of missing civilians but said they include government contractors, missionaries and those like Dean who had no connection to military operations.
"We track everybody who's an American," Greer said.
The remains are still in Laos, but will be taken to the military's identification laboratory in Hawaii next week. Dean said he likely will fly to Hawaii on Nov. 26 for a repatriation ceremony.
Lt. Col. Gerald O'Hara, a spokesman for the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command in Hawaii, said identification can take as long as several years, but he expects this case could be resolved in four to eight months because a "good quantity of remains" were recovered. He declined to say what exactly was uncovered, citing the family's privacy.