Headless torso found in cave identified as murderer who escaped jail in 1916
A headless torso that was found in a remote cave in Idaho 40 years ago has finally been identified as belonging to an outlaw who killed his wife with an axe and was last seen after escaping from jail in 1916. Clark county sheriff Bart May said the cold case will remain open because investigators do not know who killed Joseph Henry Loveless. But they were able to notify one of Loveless’ surviving relatives, an 87-year-old grandson, of his fate.
The mystery began in 1979, when a family hunting for arrowheads in Buffalo Cave near Dubois found remains wrapped in burlap and buried in a shallow grave. Few additional clues turned up until March 1991, when a girl exploring the same cave system found a mummified hand.
Investigators found an arm and two legs nearby, also wrapped in burlap.
Anthropology students and staffers from Idaho State University worked on the case. Experts from the Smithsonian Institution and the FBI were recruited to assist. But no other remains were found.
The scientists were able to determine the man’s hair was reddish brown, that he was of European descent, that he may have been around 40 when he died, and that his body had been there for at least six months and possibly as long as 10 or more years.
They weren’t able to tell what killed the man, though they could determine that his body was dismembered by a variety of sharp tools.
Earlier this year ISU and Clark county authorities asked the DNA Doe Project for help. A nonprofit, it uses DNA testing to identify John and Jane Does – unidentified bodies – in hopes of returning remains to families.
Lee Bingham Redgrave, a forensic genealogist with DNA Doe Project, said it analyzed DNA taken from the remains and then used the data to build a “genealogical tree”. It showed the Buffalo Cave John Doe was descended from pioneers who came to Utah with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and his likely grandfather was a polygamist with four wives. That meant Doe’s cousins and other relatives numbered in the hundreds, said Bingham Redgrave.
Investigators were not sure what time period the remains came from, further broadening the field of possibilities.
“He ended up having a lot of matches that were first cousins three times removed, which is very unusual in this type of scenario,” Bingham Redgrave said. “One by one we eliminated certain candidates and kept coming back to him.”
They used news articles, gravestone information and other records to try to find proof of life for all the DNA candidates, Bingham Redgrave said. They noticed a few things about Joseph Henry Loveless’s life didn’t seem to add up.
For instance, his gravestone was actually a cenotaph, a stone with his name on it but no body buried underneath.
Loveless’s second wife, Agnes Octavia Caldwell Loveless, was murdered on 5 May 1916 by a man named Walt Cairns, according to news articles and a wanted poster created by local law enforcement at the time.
But according to another local news article on Agnes’ funeral, one of her children said it was his father in jail for the murder, not Walt Cairns. The child also remarked that his dad would be escaping soon because he never stayed in jail long.
The DNA Doe Project team unraveled the truth: Joseph Henry Loveless was born on 3 December 1870 in the Utah Territory to Mormon pioneers. He married twice – his first wife Harriett Jane Savage divorced him for “abandonment”, according to Salt Lake City court records – and became a bootlegger, counterfeiter and general outlaw in Idaho.
Loveless used aliases including Walt Cairns and Charles Smith. He was notorious for escaping custody, Bingham Redgrave said, sawing through jail bars with a blade he kept in his shoe and once managing to stop a moving train.
Investigators believe he died shortly after he escaped from the St Anthony jail on 18 May 1916, where he was being held for Agnes’ murder.
“It’s blown everyone’s minds,” Bingham Redgrave said of the investigation. “The really cool thing, though, is that his wanted poster from his last escape is described as wearing the same clothing that he was found in, so that leads us to put his death date at likely 1916.”
Loveless’ descendants were unaware of their ancestor’s sordid past, so at this point there is not much more to go on besides speculation when it comes to the identity of his murderer.
Still, with the Clark county sheriff’s office keeping the case open as a homicide investigation, more clues may turn up yet.
“Who knows? Someone might recognize that name and say, ‘Oh, let me look at the old family photos.’ Someone may find something, an old news story, that isn’t digitized,” Bingham Redgrave said. “I’m really excited to see what else comes out.”