YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) — Part of a mystery that began when a man’s remains were found in 1987 has been solved after police Monday announced they have been able to identify him.
And with the way technology has advanced in recent years, the second part of the mystery — how Robert Earl Sanders, 22, of Parkwood Avenue, died, may be achievable someday.
But that’s not all.
The caller told Sweeney that Long had been traveling back and forth between Columbus and Toledo and had disappeared during one of his trips between the two cities.
The bust that was unveiled at an August press conference, seeking help in identifying the set of bones found that were later determined to be Sanders at a cemetery in the Sharon Line neighborhood of the East Side, also helped police solve the fate of a Toledo man who went missing in 1981.
“We got two cold cases cleared with this case,” said Detective Sgt, Dave Sweeney.
“This bounces all over the place,” added Chief of Detectives Capt. Jason Simon. “Cold cases very frequently are solved by people giving us information and connections. This case is all about connections.”
Sanders’ identity was announced Monday at a press conference at the Covelli Centre by city police and the state Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation, along with the Fayette County Sheriff’s Office.
When Simon unveiled a picture of Sanders at the press conference, there were audible gasps in the room.
Mayor Jamael Tito Brown said the cases show how important it is for the city to take advantage of relationships with other state agencies.
“This is truly what this is all about; partnerships,” Brown said.
Brown also said he is pleased that the identities revealed Monday can help the families of the man find some closure.
Police Chief Carl Davis also said the cases highlight the partnerships the city is part of, and he wants to make sure those partnerships continue as long as he is chief.
Davis also said it was important to provide the families of Sanders and Long with some closure.
“There are families who have believed and who have hoped, and today we are able to provide them with some answers,” Davis said.
Now a patrol supervisor on day turn after a long stint in the detective bureau, Sweeney is still in charge of the department’s missing person cases.
Sanders was reported missing Aug. 13, 1976, by his mother, who told police she had last seen her son Aug. 9, 1976. The report added his mother told the officer “it is not like him to leave.”
A 71-year-old man and his grandson were hunting for squirrels Sept. 10, 1987, at Liberty Road and Atkinson Avenue near Mount Hope Cemetery when they found a skull, reports said. Other bones included a clavicle, a scapula and some teeth.
The bones were taken to the anthropology department at Youngstown State University to be examined further, but for some reason, that examination either never took place or any record of that examination is missing.
The bones remained there until a former anthropology student at YSU reached out to police in August 2021 about the bones. The student told police she had thought of the bones over the years and was concerned because no one ever found out the identity of the person they belonged to.
“With that phone call, a case that been cold for 34 years grew warm,” Simon said.
That is when police called in BCI, who did a bust of the face based on the bones available and announced it at an Aug. 25 press conference at the police department. It didn’t take long for police to get a tip on who the person may have been.
Sweeney said a man called from Cincinnati and told police they had the wrong race for the bust. The man said the bust belonged to a white person and said the man’s name was Theodore Long, 19, who went missing in 1981 from Toledo.
Sweeney said the caller was wrong about the man’s race — the bust represented a black man — but he listened to the caller’s story and in turn contacted Toledo police.
Between the two departments, they learned of a man whose remains were fished out of a creek in Fayette County. The man was never identified, but investigators did have his fingerprints on file, where they stayed for years.
Sweeney was in contact with Toledo police while BCI consulted Columbus police. Toledo police used the fingerprints they had on file for Long, and they matched the corpse that was fished out of the creek in 1981.
The legwork between three police agencies to identify Long was astounding, Sweeney said, and took dozens of people, from sworn law enforcement personnel to civilians, to track down his identity.
But while investigators knew of Long’s fate, they still did not know who the skull and other bones found on the East Side belonged to. Investigators sent the bones they had to Ortham Labs in The Woodlands, Texas, to be tested. Othram specializes in getting molecular DNA from bones. They shared their findings with an Akron-based group that specializes in missing persons cases, the Porch Light Project, which helped pay for the testing with a grant.
With the DNA profile that was compiled, Porch Light was able to do a genealogical DNA search that led them to Sanders’ family. A family member then submitted a DNA sample when contacted, and that confirmed that the skull belonged to Sanders.
A cause of death for Sanders is officially listed as “undetermined,” but Sweeney said he was hopeful that someone can call with some information. Investigators may be able to learn how and even when he died. At the time he was found, investigators believed the skull had been there for three to five years
Attorney General David Yost pointed out that the two cases are disparate; the men did not know each other and were found 180 miles apart.
Identifying both men is crucial for investigators to try and figure out how Sanders and Long died, Yost said.
“This is just the beginning. This is not the end,” Yost said.
Davis said the case was a perfect example of how many people were needed to find the identities of the men; the tipster from YSU, BCI, a private lab, a private group that specializes in missing person cases and another tipster.
The woman who informed Sweeney about Sanders’ bones in the first place, Alisa Yelkin, also spoke. She said she first saw Sanders during a class when his skull was in what she termed a lost and found box.
“I wondered who he was, I wondered what he looked like,” she said.
Over the years, she spoke to police several times but they did not take her seriously, she said. But when she reached out to Sweeney after reading an article about his work in cold cases, she felt comfortable that he would work the case as best he could.
When she found out Sanders had been identified, Yelkin said “It was like Christmas for me.”
She urged people to get reach out to law enforcement if they are in a similar situation.
“It is going to help a family and it will help you as well,” she said. “You have no idea how it will heal your soul.”
The Porch Light project had been working the case before Youngstown police did. They already had several DNA samples in their database that helped lead them to identify Sanders.
Fayette County Sheriff Vernon P. Stanforth said his agency has been trying to identify Long for years and he said he was very appreciative of Youngstown’s help in the case. He said Long’s death has been ruled a homicide.
“We know have a name as our detectives work this homicide case,” Stanforth said.
This is the third cold case Sweeney has been able to help solve with help from a myriad of agencies.
In 2018, with the help of authorities, Sweeney was able to identify a missing body there as Lina Reyes Geddes of Austintown, who went missing in April 1998 and was found murdered that same month in Utah. In June, Sweeney and Utah authorities said that based on DNA collected from a rope used to bind her body they were able to identify her husband, who committed suicide in 2000, as her killer.
In 2021, Sweeney and Mahoning County Coroner’s Investigator Theresa Gaetano were able to identify a woman whose decomposed remains were found in October 1995 at an Otis Street apartment as America Williams, who was not reported missing until almost a year after her remains were found. Gaetano was able to get a DNA sample from a family member to confirm the remains belonged to Williams. Police received several tips that the remains were Williams after announcing they were looking for information.
Boardman police also used genealogical DNA to determine a suspect in the 1972 slaying of Brad Lee Bellino, 12, who was murdered while on the way home from a friend’s house. The suspect in the case has been deceased for several years.
Next up for Sweeney is trying to identify the body of a man pulled from the Mahoning River June 29, 1980.
Sweeney said he is in contact with authorities in Wisconsin about another cold case, but he said he can not go into specifics now. He said he expects to be working with Porch Light again as his work on the case moves forward.
At the time, the man’s body was cremated two days after he was found despite the fact an autopsy was never done. The man’s fingerprints were also not usable.
Authorities also do not have any DNA to submit because, at the time, DNA evidence was unheard of.
The man is described as a 5’8 white male, 50 to 55 years old, with brown hair and brown eyes. The date the man drowned could not be determined, but it is not believed he was in the river very long.
If anyone has any information in that case they are asked to call detectives at 330-742-8911; the coroner’s office at 330-740-2175; or CrimeStoppers Youngstown at 330-746-CLUE. Anyone with information on Sanders can also call those same numbers.