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Steve Wharton, left, and intern Sinai Yoo of CSU Sacramento review historical data from Sheriff Greg Hagwood on the 1967 case of missing Meadow Valley resident Mark Wilson in April 2016. Photos by Mari Erin Roth

Meadow Valley couple has had enough

 

“It all started three years and five months ago,” said Larry, of a process he and his wife, Glory, hope will soon end.

The couple, who requested their full names not be printed in the newspaper, had heard local rumors for years that there was a possibility that a young boy, who went missing in 1967, had ended up at the bottom of an old well on their Meadow Valley property.

Steve Wharton, left, and intern Sinai Yoo of CSU Sacramento review historical data from Sheriff Greg Hagwood on the 1967 case of missing Meadow Valley resident Mark Wilson in April 2016. Photos by Mari Erin Roth
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Sheriff Hagwood, far left, looks on while Steve Wharton talks interns Caitlin Harris, left, and Sinai Yoo through sample collection processes for a DNA test for the unsolved 49-year-old case of missing Mark Wilson.

Until the autumn of 2013 that was all that there was, just rumors. But things took a turn when on one fall day the couple received unexpected visitors.

Three people: a man, his wife and a retired police sergeant with a cadaver dog wandered up the driveway unannounced. “We just looked up and they were coming down the driveway with a dog. They introduced themselves and asked if the dog could check around the property,” said Larry.

The three-legged dog, Buster, was a famous world traveler who had experience locating remains from as far back as the Civil War. The expert cadaver dog had lost a limb to cancer. They toured the dog all over the Meadow Valley property and when they got close to the old well, Buster sounded off.

What instigated the resurgence of interest was that the mother of the woman of the visiting trio had lived in the area around the time the missing boy, Mark Wilson, disappeared.

“The woman’s mother was dying and she was sure that Mark was in the well,” said Larry. The daughter hoped to resolve the issue for her mother before she died.

Because of Buster’s positive response, the retired Sgt. contacted the on-duty officer at Plumas Sheriff’s Office.

After a few weeks, an investigator with the District Attorney’s Office contacted the Meadow Valley homeowners and came out and talked to them.

“He told us he was going to try to get some dogs to come out,” said Larry, who learned that three dogs were needed to check, with two dogs positively identifying the site. It was hard to find available cadaver dogs.

“One was going to come, but he died of cancer,” said Larry. The dogs must come separately with a few months between so they don’t trigger each other. The sheriff brought out their Search And Rescue dog that is also a cadaver dog.

“When it came out, it hit,” said Larry, agreeing with Buster.

By that time the homeowners had torn out the floor covering over the well to improve dog access. A third dog came from the San Mateo Sheriff’s Office. It hit too. So that was 3 out of 3.

It was at that point that it seemed the sheriff got more involved, recalled the homeowner. A few months went by and the FBI got involved.

“They (FBI) came up as the evidence recovery team on Feb 25, 2014,” said Larry.

Recounting the events of that day, Larry said, “There wasn’t much they could do because there was debris in the well and they didn’t bring all their tools with them, probes, etc.”

One thing the sheriff really helped with was after that first unannounced visit, the sheriff always let the couple know who and when any investigators might be expected.

On Mar. 5, 2014, Sheriff Hagwood brought an environmental/mining engineer out to the site.

“They were talking about getting in a crane to lift the existing well house building off of the slab to improve access,” said Larry. Then on March 6 it was suggested to move the well house, 100 years old, to a temporary location.

Describing the parade of people evaluating the situation on his property, Larry said that on March 20 people came out from a crane company in Reno and then the county road department came out to see what they could do.

“Greg (Hagwood) brought out a contractor who had experience with old buildings who said he could take it (well house) completely apart and put it back together in the same condition,” said Larry. One of the problems with moving the build was that it is attached to a big water tower.

June 18 brought an influx of more new visitors. At 10:30 a.m., the sheriff, two deputies, two FBI engineers from Quantico, Virginia, an FBI agent from Reno and a superintendent from a large industrial firm responsible for drilling San Francisco bay tunnels visited the Meadow Valley home.

All these people came to Meadow Valley to look at the abandoned residential well on Larry and his wife’s homestead to determine whether a young boy had died in there in 1967.

All these engineers and technicians were looking at what would have to be done to unravel the puzzle. “It was a real three-ring circus,” said Larry.

One conclusion was to leave everything exactly where it sat, as is, and engineers would dig a 5 ft. hole around the well to collect samples. This plan required a big crew to be on site. There would be miners, the FBI, the Sheriff’s Office; with a deputy on the property 24 hours a day for security reasons.

Larry said, “OSHA got involved also. They determined an Emergency Medical Technician would need to be on hand and there would need to be a helicopter landing area available.” Larry continued, “A fire truck would be on site and it would all cost $400,000. The county sheriff alone would be $90,000.” Larry said he thought a cost like that would be too large a burden for a small county like Plumas to bear.

At that point, everything was sort of put on hold. “OSHA came along and vetoed the whole idea because of the age of the building; they thought it might catch on fire,” said Larry.

It was around August 2014 when the organ player at Larry’s church showed he and his wife a copy of an article from a Columbia, Missouri, newspaper. It showed a picture of their Meadow Valley home and provided a description of the current well situation.

“An Associated Press photographer had come up to the house and taken pictures unbeknownst to us,” said Larry, which is one reason last names and identifying photos have not been used in this article.

Sheriff Hagwood concluded in September 2014 his office would do the excavation on its own. The team consisted of Hagwood, an assistant sheriff and a civilian who came up with different types of equipment to excavate the well, according to Larry.

“So for several months, three of us pulled stuff out of the well,” said Larry, “Working two or three times a week for two or three hours at a time.”

Larry said they pulled up building materials and even an old 1930 battery. “The dirt was bagged up and taken to the sheriff office,” said Larry.

As the trio got further down, they hit the water table and, Larry said, “There wasn’t any piece of equipment we could beg, borrow or steal to keep up with the water coming in.”

So they stopped. It was getting cold. It was October 2014.

“Not much happened after that,” said Larry.

Not much until in February of this year when Steve Wharton came out to look at the site. Wharton’s card says he is a Registered Environmental Health Specialist from Carmichael.

Wharton became interested in the well after reading an article in this newspaper that recapped the unsolved case of the missing youth.

After contacting the sheriff to inquire about testing, which Hagwood said would be expensive and had not yet been done, Wharton took it upon himself to procure funding and staff to do a DNA test of the well.

Thus equipped, Wharton returned to Meadow Valley in April with two students to collect data for tests.

At the time of the testing, it was anticipated the results would take six weeks to become available.

The Meadow Valley couple was notified by PCSO that the test results came back “inconclusive.” Wharton said that meant that “no testable DNA” was found in the samples.

Wharton left the majority of comments on the well testing to Hagwood but wanted to add, “Plumas County has a one of a kind Sheriff. He is the best I have ever worked with.” Hagwood said, “We want to collect more samples and test again.”

One factor that limited the implementation of that process was no water in the well through the summer according to Hagwood.

Now it’s December.

“A couple months ago, we figured enough is enough and decided we want to fill in the well and close this chapter,” said Larry last week of the conclusion he and his wife have finally reached. “We would like it done so if at some point we sell the house, every thing would be completed, all wrapped up.” Commenting on the owners’ desire to fill in the well and be done with it Hagwood said, “We completely understand and sympathize with the property owners.”

But Hagwood is committed to “conclude one way or the other, sooner or later, that Mark Wilson’s DNA is in the well, or it is not.”

 

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