LEXINGTON, Ky. (LEX 18) — 48 years ago, three people from Virginia set out on a road trip for a family reunion in central Kentucky. They never arrived. And for nearly a half-century, no one truly knew why.
“It had to be sad for the family, but it also had to be a relief, because they know their loved one's story and how it ended,” said Fayette County Coroner Gary Ginn.
Ginn said the process of identifying these remains was by far the most complicated scenario of his career. It took the work of multiple labs across the country to identify a match and even then the match could only be connected to a fourth-generation niece of two of the victims.
It was a five-year process from when the vehicle was located and pulled from the Kentucky River near Valley View Ferry. The green Ford Fairlane was spotted when a Lexington Fire Department dive team was conducting a training exercise. Captain Christopher Warren made identifying these individuals his own personal mission.
“I sat at a computer all day every day,” he said of his constant searches for missing persons. (One such search yielded a result with similar characteristics, but DNA markers were not conclusive, so the search continued).
After 43 years of decomposition, extracting DNA from the skeletal remains was the second biggest challenge. Finding a matching family member was probably the biggest. Neither of the two women in the car, Martha Smith-Helmick and Flora Smith-Helmick, had children, and their siblings had passed away. It had to be narrowed down based on a broken tibia Martha had sustained earlier in life that was never corrected. That, and elevated shoe she wore that to help her walk after the leg injury.
The third person in the vehicle was then-81-year-old James Edwin Keyton—it was his family the trio was going to visit. He was known for being a poor driver, who had been issued citations for numerous moving violations over the years.
Captain Warren became consumed with helping to track down the victims’ identities and locating surviving family members. He wouldn’t call this accomplishment a career highlight, but he’s obviously happy with the outcome.
“I had a shift in mentality, once I got to know the family. And then my pursuit was for them,” he said.
He then thanked his wife for allowing him to put in the hours this type of work required. He’ll have to thank her at least once more, next year.
Capt. Warren and Mr. Ginn plan on driving Martha’s remains to Virginia in the spring so that her family members can give her a proper burial.