After 37 years of waiting and hoping, relatives of the late Arthur Raymond Flowers finally have some semblance of closure, but they're still left with unanswered questions.
A 10-month investigation by the Ross County Coroner's Office confirmed Tuesday -- with the help of DNA testing -- that a previously unidentified man found drowned in the Scioto River on June 21, 1975, was Flowers.
Flowers, a 41-year-old Army veteran from Hardin County, had gone missing from the Chillicothe Veterans Affairs Hospital two days earlier. A letter from the VA to Flowers' mother, Ida, said he had left the hospital without permission. The letter requested she contact the hospital if she learned of his whereabouts. She never did.
Flowers' family members traveled twice to Chillicothe to try to find him, but were unsuccessful, said Mike Ratliff, chief investigator for the Ross County Coroner's Office.
In July 1983, Flowers was legally declared dead in Hardin County Probate Court.
For years, Ida Flowers held onto the belief her son was still alive and being cared for by someone in Ross County, said Amy Ward, granddaughter of Ida and niece of "Uncle Ray."
Shortly after Ida died in 1991, the family bought a monument for Ray in hopes they would be able to bury him next to his mother some day. Flowers might have remained missing if not for a series of events during the past year that led to his identification.
The mystery began June 21, 1975, when a fisherman found a body in the Scioto River north of Chillicothe, according to Gazette archives.
Benny Roberts told the sheriff's office at the time he had been fishing from a boat on the river when he spotted the nude body of a man caught on a snag in the middle of the river. Roberts helped deputies retrieve the body, which was badly decomposed and initially estimated to have been in the river for five weeks. The description from 1975 was that the man was about 6 feet tall, white and possibly in his late 30s.
An autopsy was performed at the Hamilton County Coroner's Office in 1975, where the cause of death was determined to be drowning, but identification was never made. The body was buried in an unmarked grave in Londonderry Cemetery.
The case was tucked away and almost forgotten, only to be resurrected in early summer 2011 when the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System -- NamUs -- contacted the Ross County Coroner's Office to see if the John Doe had ever been identified.
The body was exhumed and taken to a lab in Cincinnati, where Dr. Elizabeth Murray, of NamUs, collected DNA and performed an anthropological examination in an attempt to make an identification.
Ward, who lives in Bellefontaine, contacted the Ross County Coroner's Office in May after seeing photos of the facial reconstruction sculpture that had been released to the media.
A family reference DNA sample -- from Flowers' brother -- was collected and sent in June to the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification. The sample was then compared to one collected from Flowers' body.
The coroner's office had a "strong presumptive ID" of Flowers after comparing his old dental charts to the dental charts and X-rays performed on the remains, but it wasn't until the DNA results came back Tuesday that coroner Dr. John Gabis identified the body as Flowers.
"I always said I would keep looking for him as long as I lived," said Ward, who was 7 when her uncle disappeared.
Ward's memories of her uncle are spotty, but she remembers him as a quiet and kind man who tried to cheer her up when she was down, often with a handful of change from his pocket.
Flowers wasn't married, and after his father died, he bought a house in Kenton -- a small town of about 8,000 people in Hardin County -- for himself and his mother, whom he took care of financially, Ward said.
"He was always kind to my grandmother," Ward said.
Ward doesn't know why Flowers was being treated at the VA, but she said he suffered from grand mal seizures for which he required medication.
Although the identification has brought some closure to his family, "it opens up a new door," Ward said.
The circumstances under which Flowers' body was discovered raise "a lot of unanswered questions," she said.
"We may never know exactly what happened," she said.
The cause of death was ruled a drowning, but the manner of death was left undetermined. When found, Flowers had no clothes on and a piece of rope was tied around one ankle and looped around the other.
"It's very strange. We're not sure (what happened). It's possible that was placed on him to pull him from the river," Ratliff said.
Records are scarce and provide few details, but Ratliff said there was a note that the rope was returned to the Ross County Sheriff's Office as evidence.
"At some point, someone thought it was a contributor to what happened," Ratliff said.
He plans to discuss the case again with the sheriff's office, but said he doesn't have much hope investigators will discover much because there is so little to go on. However, he said, he once was unsure they ever would learn the man's name.
"I know there are still thousands of people missing and unidentified, and I hope this case is an inspiration to never stop searching and never give up hope," Ratliff said.
As a result of the Flowers case, Ratliff said, the family of a missing man from Tuscarawas County has entered DNA into NamUs in hopes of finding him.
Ward said her family still is in the process of making funeral arrangements. She indicated Flowers' body will be returned to Hardin County to be laid to rest next to his mother.