Skull linked to UT scout missing since 1961 flood

Doralee Freebairn remembers the day well. It was September 1961. Her older brother was on a Boy Scouts trip, hiking in the canyons of Zion National Park.

She was in the yard at home in Salt Lake City watering plants when news crackled over the radio. There had been a massive flash flood in the Narrows.

"I thought, 'Oh, that's where Alvin is,'" Freebairn recalled Friday. "Then it just turned into a nightmare."

Five people were swept away and presumed dead, but searchers never found the bodies of Freebairn's then 17-year-old older brother, Alvin Nelson, or his best friend, Frank Johnson.

This week, some 51 years later, Freebairn finally got the news she had been waiting for.

Authorities matched DNA to a skull fragment found by a man swimming in the Virgin River in 2006. It was Alvin.

"It's kind of a nice birthday present," said Freebairn, who turned 66 last month. "But after so many years, it really doesn't bring closure. It's been a long time."

She sat in her home outside Salt Lake City on Friday flipping through old newspaper clippings about the search for bodies back then. She smiled and told stories about Alvin as she looked at graying photos from an album she pulled from a box in the closet.

"I'll tell you, not finding a body was rough," Freebairn said.

Her father left the family when they were young. It was just her mother and Alvin, the man of the house.

"It was really hard on mother. It was always a pain she carried," Freebairn said. "She relied on him for so much."

Her mother died in 1996.

Freebairn married and adopted children, but not a week went by that she didn't think about her brother.

"The pain was always there," Freebairn said.

And hope.

"Maybe something else happened. Maybe they were able to get out. Maybe he hit his head on something and got amnesia," she recalled thinking over the years. "Without a body, you always hope. It takes years and years before you actually believe they've got to be gone."

Springdale Police Chief Kurt Wright grew up in the canyons of southern Utah. The story of that 1961 flood has been legend around the area.

"A lot of people still living in the canyon were involved in that search," Wright said.

It had always been on his mind, too. What ever happened to those boys? Where were the bodies?

Then in 2006, a man swimming in the Virgin River found the top half of a human skull and brought it to police.

"My thoughts immediately went to the Boy Scouts who were never found," Wright said. "That's the only thing that's never really been solved here. We've had numerous drownings since then in the Narrows, but we've always recovered the victims."

He discussed it with a local medical examiner and the two thought "let's just leave it alone for now, not reopen old wounds," Wright recalled.

The bone fragment ended up in a box in the department's evidence room where it sat until earlier this year when another investigator reminded Wright about it. DNA testing on a bone that could have even belonged to an ancient inhabitant of the area would have been hugely expensive for his small department, a costly fishing expedition.

He then learned that the University of North Texas was offering free DNA testing to law enforcement, so he decided to give it a go.

Wright tracked down Freebairn and relatives of Johnson in Oregon and Alaska for DNA samples to compare to the bone then shipped it all to the university.

Two weeks ago, he got word it wasn't Johnson. Then he got another call on Thursday. Half of the mystery was solved. Alvin Nelson, at least part of him, had finally been found.

"It's nice to bring some closure to at least one of the families," Wright said. "It's a great feeling, but it was hard to deliver the news to the Johnson family."

Telephone calls by The Associated Press to Johnson's family weren't returned.

"At least Doralee can get some closure now and move on," the chief said. "It's just amazing they can extract DNA from something that's been under water for 50 years in the sand and mud. It's been a fascinating case."

Authorities are now in discussions with state archeologists about mounting a fresh search in the area, though Wright is doubtful anything else will be found.

Freebairn plans to pick up her brother's remains later this summer to bury beneath a headstone in Salt Lake City that her mother purchased before her death.

"You'd think after all these years it would be put to rest, but all the stress and the frustration just comes right back," she said. "I find this all very spiritual."