Through three decades of dread and hope after Donald Theodore Allison disappeared in the late 1970s, his family never gave up the search for answers.
Investigators with the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office, probing for years the 1979 Lenado murder that is the upper valley’s only unsolved homicide, also refused to relent.
In April, the quests by Allison’s relatives and law enforcement, using the FBI and a national database that tracks the missing and the unidentified, converged to confirm that he was the man killed in a remote meadow above Woody Creek in August 1979.
Brad Gibson, Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office investigator, called Allison’s daughter in May with the heartbreaking news.
Authorities kept the identity a secret to allow the investigation to begin anew until Sheriff Joe DiSalvo on Wednesday released Allison’s name. He heralded the Internet-aided discovery as a major breakthrough in the case because DNA recovered at the scene can now be winnowed between the victim and suspect or suspects.
Allison, a fishery biologist who was born in Toronto, was shot in the head and chest with a .22-caliber gun, possibly by two people with different weapons.
The sheriff’s office on Wednesday tried to avoid jeopardizing the ongoing search for the killer or killers while still detailing how Allison was confirmed as the victim.
What’s known is Allison’s daughter and possibly other family members periodically checked in with police in Jackson, Wyo., and Duluth, Minn., ensuring that his name was included in the latest missing-persons databases.
“We were putting in some information about our missing person,” DiSalvo said. “Another agency also had put in some information about a missing person. The two came together in cyberspace as a match, and that’s what started the investigation between our agency and another out-of-state agency. Once that linked up, we were able to work cooperatively, compare the fingerprints and come up with an ID.
“I think it is unbelievable.”
The mushroom hunters who discovered the body on Aug. 18, 1979, had driven about 14 miles up Woody Creek Road (also known, after a certain point, as Lenado Road). According to the first article on the crime, in the Aug. 23 Aspen Times of that year, the party “walked down an embankment about 218 feet and spotted the body, partially covered with tree trunks which were lying across the lower portion of the body.”
Allison might have been blindfolded, as pieces of thread entered his right eye ahead of a bullet. Another bullet was fired into his chest, and Allison might have been shot a third time in the head.
He was possibly camping in the area, as evidenced by several bloodstained items found near his body, including a bedspread, a “Colorful Colorado” map and a map of what was then known as Rocky Mountain National Forest.
The clothing at the scene included his blue jeans, a blue long-sleeved shirt he wore over a red T-shirt, gray socks and brown leather moccasins; and near his body were paperback books wrapped in a blanket, among them Ernest Hemingway’s “The Fifth Column” and “The Cool World” by Warren Miller, according to a 1992 Aspen Times article.
Allison’s body was found not far from the old saw mill above Lenado.
DiSalvo declined to comment on who was interviewed in 1979. And he said investigators have just begun interviewing longtime Lenado residents: “We’ll find out if the name rings a bell with anybody.”
Evidence of the crime sat for years in a series of boxes in the sheriff’s office basement. The case became a rite of passage for investigators.
“If it was slow, somebody would say, ‘Hey, take a crack at finding out who the Lenado man is,’” DiSalvo said. “So every few years a new detective would open it up, go through it and come up with some new ideas, fresh leads, a fresh sketch. We were trying to do anything we could. And that’s just how it went with no real evidence on who this guy was.”
In recent years, identifying the body became a priority for the sheriff’s office.
“We were trying to find out who this guy was so we could get him and his family back together again,” DiSalvo said. “That’s really where the investigation had turned.”
The general manager of the missing-persons website The Doe Network said she was asked Wednesday to remove the file on Allison because his identity had been established. The site had reported that he was last seen in Jackson Hole, Wyo., in 1979.
Lt. Bob Gilliam of the Jackson Hole Police Department said Wednesday that Allison’s daughter contacted authorities there in 2005.
Records show “she reached out to us asking that we list her father as a missing person not only in the [National Crime Information Center database] but also a database called namus.gov,” Gilliam said.
The daughter told Jackson Hole authorities that her father was a fishery biologist who was born in Toronto. He left Wyoming for a job with a former colleague in Fort Collins at the Colorado National Biological Laboratories, Gilliam said, citing what the daughter told police.
How or why he ended up above Lenado from the Front Range is unknown.
Allison’s family living in Duluth, Minn., made similar listing requests to that area’s sheriff’s office in 1992, Gilliam said.
Jackson Hole authorities took the daughter’s DNA samples and sent them to the University of Texas, apparently as part of the namus.gov effort, he said.
Namus.gov, a missing and unidentified persons system, would prove crucial, DiSalvo said.
Pitkin County authorities kept as evidence Allison’s skull and hands, and preserved his fingerprints.
The prints weren’t sent to the FBI until December, after the sheriff’s office obtained a potential match based on several similarities in another case found on namus.gov.
For fear of jeopardizing an investigation that is once again active, DiSalvo said he would not confirm if the details, including dental records, found in the local investigation matched those made in the daughter’s 2005 report that was put on namus.gov.
But the report showed that Allison had applied for a federal job, “and his fingerprint was there,” DiSalvo said of a government agency file.
That allowed the sheriff’s office to send the prints to the FBI for comparison. The FBI alerted the sheriff’s office in April that there was a match between the Lenado victim and Allison’s government record as a biologist.
Allison, except the parts of him that remain in evidence, is buried in an unmarked grave in Aspen’s Red Butte Cemetery.
When told of the connection, the family’s emotions mixed relief and pain, Gibson said.
“You’re glad because you know he didn’t run off and leave you, but he’s dead, he’s murdered,” he said. “The reaction was what I would expect.”
It’s unknown how old Allison’s daughter was at the time he was murdered and what the circumstances were regarding his family life.
DiSalvo said that since the investigation reignited in May, there already are people of interest as possible suspects in the murder case.
“I think there’s [now] a better chance of extracting [Allison’s DNA] out of there and disregarding it, and finding somebody else’s in there,” he said. “Now that we know who he is, we can eliminate all that extraneous DNA and fibers and whatever matches him, and whatever doesn’t match him is new information.
“We’re treating this case as if it happened yesterday.”