By Barbara Wilson
The old adage “the squeaky wheel gets the grease” speaks volumes about a decades-old mystery with connections to the Illinois National Guard.
It was through the tenacity of an Iowa woman to get officials to test unidentified human remains, which had been in the custody of the Wyoming State Crime Lab for a quarter century, to determine if they were those of a grandfather she had never met.
The mystery started in the early 1960s when an Iowa man was shot and killed. The remains were then buried in his yard. Sometime later the remains were dug up, packed in an old military trunk and transported to Wyoming.
It took nearly 25 years to determine the remains were those of Joseph Mulvaney, a World War II veteran of the Illinois National Guard, who later worked on the railroad and who disappeared from Des Moines, Iowa in 1963.
“His children were told he just wandered off,” granddaughter Shelley Statler said.
Statler credited the Illinois National Guard with helping her research Mulvaney’s military service and prove his veteran status.
“When I started researching my grandfather, I had a name and birthdate. I used Ancestry.com and Newspapers.com extensively to try to find some information about him,” Statler said. “Through research, we found he had served in the military. I talked to the Iowa National Guard, who put me in contact with the Illinois National Guard, specifically the Public Affairs Director, Lt. Col. (Bradford) Leighton, who put me in contact with the Command Historian Adriana Schroeder.”
“Through Adriana’s research, we were able to verify his veteran status, even though his original military paperwork was lost in a fire at the National Archives in St. Louis,” Statler said. “She was able to find a picture in a unit yearbook, and provided a copy to the family. Through the yearbook and additional documentation, the National Archives certified his military service and his veteran status which allows for the military funeral services. The help from the Illinois National Guard has proven invaluable in this process.”
When Leighton approached Schroeder about assisting Statler in determining if her grandfather served in the Illinois National Guard and if so, providing any information possible in order to verify veteran status, Schroeder knew she had in her archives a yearbook of the 33rd Division when it was headquartered in Decatur. In fact, the yearbook was published at Camp Forrest, Tenn. when the unit was training prior to being sent overseas.
“I knew we only had two units to serve overseas during World War II, the 33rd Division in the Pacific Theater and the 106th Infantry Division in the European Theater,” Schroeder said. “I started with the yearbook and had to search page by page since there was no index listing names in the book.”
Schroeder found Mulvaney’s photo in the first few pages of the yearbook, so her next step was to contact the Records Branch at Camp Lincoln to see if they had any records of him.
“We were able to locate his service number from the records we had,” she said. “However, the family would need a DD-214 in order to set up military services at the funeral.”
Schroeder’s next stop would be submitting a request on behalf of the family for a DD-214 to the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Mo. The National Personnel Records Center is the repository for millions of military personnel, health and medical records of discharged and deceased veterans of all services.
Due to a 1973 fire at the center, many of the records for service members who served from 1912 to 1959 were lost. A letter Schroeder received about four to five months after the request was submitted indicated the documentation needed to answer the question to Mulvaney’s veteran status was unavailable due to the fire. However the letter outlined that alternative record sources to reconstruct the files were available.
One such resource was a record indicating Mulvaney had been hospitalized in Australia for a stomach issue. According to Schroeder, by chance the U.S. Army had compiled a report for statistical services and according to the letter, the report had included a random sampling – and among the random samplings was a record with Mulvaney’s service number included. The report had been placed on magnetic tapes created by the National Research Council and included the years 1942 to 1945.
“No names or unit identification was included on the patients, just their serial numbers,” Schroeder said. “This was just a random sampling of patients, and the fact that the report included his information is incredible.”
The only information that distinguished the record as Mulvaney’s was his military serial number. Armed with the information from the U.S. Army report on the magnetic tape, the National Personnel Records Center was able to certify Mulvaney’s military service. To complete the process, they issued a Certificate of Military Service.
“The certificate listed that Technician 5th Grade Joseph Mulvaney served in the Pacific Theater during World War II and indicated he was awarded an honorable discharge,” Schroeder said. “The documentation also indicates the certificate serves as verification of military service and is to be used for all official purposes.”
The National Personnel Records Center sent Schroeder certified copies of the document which were passed along to Statler to use in obtaining a military funeral for her grandfather.
“The Army is one big family,” Schroeder said. “We have had National Guards in three states working on this – Iowa, Illinois and Wyoming. It proves that we take care of not only our current members, but also the men and women who previously served in the National Guard and are now deceased.”
Much like his death, only bits and pieces are known about Mulvaney's life. Statler knows he was born on Jan. 3, 1921, in Mattoon, Illinois, the son of Joseph Henry Mulvaney and Kathryn Goar Mulvaney. She added that Kathryn Goar Mulvaney had grown up in Mattoon.
He joined the Illinois National Guard at Decatur in 1941 and served in the 130th Infantry Regiment of the 33rd Division during World War II. His service from 1941-45 took him to Australia and the Philippines.
When he returned from war, he went to work for railroad companies, which Statler believes took him to California. She believes he left Illinois for California with his father, shortly after his mother’s death. It was there that he met Mary Alyce McLees, an Iowa native, Statler said.
The couple had three children together, and Mary Alyce had one child from a previous relationship - John David Morris, who was known as “Gabby” and who would one day be in possession of Mulvaney's skeletal remains.
In the early 1960s, Joseph, Mary Alyce and their three children, ages 6, 7 and 9, moved to Des Moines. In 1963, they bought a house on the northwest side of the Iowa capital city.
“Mary Alyce grew up in Des Moines, but Joseph had no ties to Iowa outside of his wife, and three young children,” Statler said.
Shortly after they signed the paperwork to buy the house, Mulvaney disappeared. He was never reported as a missing person. Statler believes the reason a missing person report was never filed was his wife’s family knew what had happened to him, so he wasn’t really missing, plus with both parents now deceased, he really had no ties to anywhere.
Statler believes her grandfather was shot and killed in Des Moines, buried in the backyard of her grandmother's home, where Mulvaney's remains rested until Morris dug them up, placed them in the trunk and took them with him to Wyoming.
Sometime around 1986 Morris gave the shed in which the locker was stored to Newell Sessions of Thermopolis, Wyoming. According to the agreement, Sessions would move the shed off Morris’ property.
Sessions took the shed, but never bothered to open the trunk. It wasn’t until 1992 when he eventually cut through the lock with a torch and open the footlocker. After discovering human remains inside, he called the Hot Springs County, Wyoming Sheriff’s office.
Hot Springs County Sheriff's deputies didn't have much to work with. They had no idea how old the bones were; they relied on the age of the items surrounding the skeletal remains.
What authorities did know was there was a bullet lodged in the skull and evidence that the victim had been shot in the chest. The bones became evidence of a homicide without a victim's name, age, time of death or a location where the crime was committed.
A plastic bag inside the trunk with the bones was from a Hy-Vee, which led authorities to wonder if the remains were of an Iowan. Hy-Vee was founded in 1930 by Charles Hyde and David Vrendenburg in Beaconsfield, Iowa.
Before the bones in the truck were identified, a computer rendering of what the homicide victim might have looked like was released by the Hot Springs Sheriff's Office.
"Unsolved Mysteries" featured the investigation into the bones during a Feb. 24, 1993, episode. The Hot Springs County Sheriff's Office, with the help of the Wyoming State Crime Lab, continued to investigate this case to try to identify the victim over the years.
By April 1992, Morris had moved to Texas. He told authorities then that he bought the trunk — a footlocker — at a sale in Wyoming, Iowa or Illinois. Hot Springs County detectives never considered Morris a suspect in the murder.
Sheriff John Lumley went to work contacting and interviewing Morris but dismissed him as a suspect, as the locker, padlock and items inside were dated from sometime between 1930-1950. Morris would have been about 16 when Mulvaney disappeared in Des Moines.
Although she has no proof, Statler believes her grandmother shot and killed Mulvaney, though she thinks Morris knows more than what he shared with law enforcement.
"I do believe John Morris knows more than he is saying, but I don't believe he pulled the trigger," Statler said.
No charges were ever filed in Mulvaney's murder.
Morris’ current whereabouts are unknown to Statler, and despite many questions remaining in his role in how Mulvaney’s remains ended up in a military trunk in Wyoming, he won’t be facing any charges.
“Law enforcement officials can’t prove he had anything to do with the murder and he won’t be facing any charges for having the remains in his possession,” Statler said.
Statler was 19 when a story appeared in the Des Moines, Iowa Register about the bones in Wyoming and the Hy-Vee bag that possibly tied the remains to Iowa. Statler's father told her the remains might belong to her maternal grandfather.
"I was young and didn't pay much attention to it," she said. "As I got older, I became more interested in family history and kept coming back to the story."
Statler and her mother, Kathy Mulvaney Guynn, Joseph's oldest daughter, tried contacting Wyoming authorities for years. After the "Unsolved Mysteries" episodes, law enforcement in Thermopolis was swamped by calls. According to Statler, an additional 10 families had contacted authorities stating the remains might belong to their family member.
Statler kept navigating through bureaucratic red tape until, finally, in 2017, officials agreed to test Guynn's DNA against the bones. Law enforcement officials collected a DNA sample from Guynn on Oct. 19, 2017. On Oct. 26, 2017, reported the sample was a 99 percent match. These were Mulvaney’s bones.
“The desire to learn about my grandfather motivated our family to submit the DNA sample. But it wasn’t as simple as walking in and offering a DNA sample,” Statler said. “People retire, they change jobs and things slip through the cracks. After nearly 25 years, it wasn’t a priority case, so it was difficult finding the right person who could make the testing happen.”
It took another two years for Statler to finally officially claim her grandfather's remains from the state of Wyoming. Mulvaney’s remains were cremated ahead of a long-overdue military funeral on March 29 in Cody, Wyoming.
Statler credited Families on the Frontline, a Cody-military support organization, for help with the service. Ballard Funeral Home in Cody also waived its fees for the memorial.
Statler plans to bring her grandfather's remains home to Iowa. After nearly three decades inside a rusty trunk and 25 more years in a Wyoming evidence locker, Joseph Mulvaney will finally be with his family.
"I'm going to keep him with me for a while," Statler said.
Mulvaney is survived by three children, six grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren, plus one on the way. His youngest son, Mike, died in 2001.
Still, Statler said there is a lot that she does not know about her grandfather. Statler said she hopes that Mattoon- and Decatur-area residents will be able to provide additional information about him and help her get in contact with any remaining family in the area.
"There are so many unanswered questions even at this point. It's frustrating, there are a lot of different things I can't find," Statler said. "I need as much help as I can get at this point."
Statler is still seeking information about her grandfather, including more information on her grandfather’s life and possibly additional family members from Illinois. Statler still wants to find out what happened to her grandfather. Anyone with information about the case can reach her by email at email@example.com or telephone at (515) 202-0486.