A painful mystery endures, and a family’s hopes are crushed, after DNA tests revealed a John Doe buried in Leamington is not a U.S. businessman who disappeared in a plane crash five decades ago.
For 52 years, the sting of unanswered questions has plagued the family of 48-year-old James Wilson, whose body was never found following the Lake Erie plane crash.
It seemed closure was within reach last September when Ontario’s chief coroner ordered the exhumation of a John Doe in Lakeview cemetery for DNA testing.
But the coroner contacted the family this week with disappointing news. The unnamed body found shortly after the crash, with matching height, weight, hair colour and missing teeth, is not James Wilson.
“It’s like someone stabbed you in the heart,” said daughter-in-law Anita Wilson, who lives just south of Boston. “It’s very sad, because we were positive. We hoped this would be the answer we were waiting for, saying yes it’s him. We were going to take a drive to Ontario and bring him home. We had the whole thing in our heads, burying him down at Bourne National Cemetery. Then I had to contact everybody and say, sorry, it’s not him.”
James Wilson died along with eight other people when their plane crashed into an ice-covered Lake Erie ice on Jan. 28, 1970.
The nine-passenger DeHavilland Dove took off from Cleveland’s Burke Lakefront Airport that day at 7:38 a.m. Eleven minutes later, the plane disappeared from radar. Divers recovered most of the bodies by the following May when the lake thawed. But the tail section, where Wilson was sitting, disappeared.
Anita initially believed her father-in-law’s body was the only one not recovered. She now acknowledges the body of second crash victim was never found, but added that person was too young and too short to be the John Doe.
Norfolk County OPP and the Ontario coroner’s office co-ordinated efforts to exhume the John Doe after Anita began a crusade to find closure for her husband, Mark, and his family.
She spent the last several years calling police services and other agencies around Lake Erie. She filed missing persons reports, arranged for Wilson’s sons to give DNA samples and logged every photo, news story and official document she could find about the case.
One of her calls was to the Norfolk OPP detachment. They didn’t have any answers, but they started looking into it. Working with Ontario Forensic Pathology Services, they linked Wilson to the John Doe.
The exhumation began Sept. 29. The results came in this week, and the Wilson family’s hopes were dashed with a one-sentence conclusion on the bottom of a lab report.
The DNA taken from the femur of the John Doe is “excluded as having originated from the biological father” of the four Wilson brothers who provided comparison samples, the report states.
The John Doe will be returned to Plot L33-3-4-17 at Lakeview Cemetery in Leamington.
“I was pretty confident we had the right guy,” said Det. Sgt. Michael Wilfong with the Norfolk County OPP detachment. “We’re going to work with the family through the next steps of this process. We’re disappointed. We were hoping for a good outcome for this family. We’re certainly open to any new information that comes forward about this case.”
Anita is discouraged, but not deterred. The police, coast guard units and missing persons agencies around Lake Erie will be hearing from her again soon.
“I’m going to keep on searching,” said Anita. “I wasn’t sure that I was going to, but my husband wants me to. So I will keep digging.”