For those who think these are the most violent times we’ve ever lived through, here’s two words that might change your mind: headless torso. And if you’re thinking about committing a heinous crime and hiding your identity so it will never be linked to you, here’s three words to make you think otherwise: DNA Doe Project. This group of volunteers dedicated to helping identify John and Jane Does managed to solve a ‘crime of the century’ while identifying a headless torso that had been a mystery for a century, thus notifying a family that they’re related to an axe murderer. Is there a happy ending somewhere in this story?
Wanted For Murder!
Walt Cairns, age about 40 years, height about 5 ft. 8 or 9 in., weight about 165 pounds, dark brown hair, slightly gray around ears, eyes bluish brown, medium complexion, has little or no eyebrows, small scar over right eye, tattoo of star on right hand between thumb and index finger, also tattoo of anchor same place on left hand; he wore a light colored hat, brown coat, red sweater, blue overalls over black trousers.
Walt Cairns is supposed to have murdered Mrs. Agnes Loveless, with an axe, at Dubois, Idaho, night of May 5th, 1916. He was arrested and taken to St. Anthony, Idaho, were he sawed out of the county jail on the evening of May 18th, 1916.
That description from the Wanted poster issued in 1916 by Sheriff John T. Fisher of St. Anthony is of Joseph Henry Loveless, aka Walt Cairns, Charles Smith and other aliases. Loveless was well known in Idaho as a bootlegger, counterfeiter, general outlaw and jailbreaker. With that detailed description and his reputation, Cairns/Loveless should have been picked up quickly. Yet he disappeared without a trace and the axe murder of his wife remained a cold case until this week.
According to The Washington Post, in 1979, a family hunting for arrowheads in Buffalo Cave near Dubois, Idaho, found a headless torso wrapped in burlap and buried in a shallow grave. In 1991, a girl exploring the same cave found a mummified hand. Investigators later found an arm and two legs, also wrapped in burlap. Forensic experts determined the male had reddish brown hair, was of European descent, was about 40 when he died and was dismembered by someone skilled with sharp cutting tools. However, no one – including experts from Idaho State university, the Smithsonian Institution and the FBI – could identify the man and he remained a John Doe … until 2019, when the DNA Doe Project was called in.
“DNA Doe Project, Inc. is a 501(c)(3) non-profit humanitarian initiative created to help identify Jane and John Does and return them to their families. The aim and process is similar to adoptees looking for birth-families, hoping to learn who they are. The difference is that the Does can't speak for themselves – so we must speak for them. Their families are not looking for reunions, but for closure.”
Using DNA from the remains, DNA Doe Project volunteers determined 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 he probably had hundreds of relatives. As they searched and eliminated candidates, the path narrowed to one Joseph Henry Loveless. Using news articles and grave finders, they location Loveless’s gravestone, but there was no grave or body. His second wife Agnes was murdered with an axe by one Walt Cairns. However, a news article on the funeral of Agnes quoted one of her children saying her father was in jail for the murder and would be escaping soon because that’s what he was good at. Connecting all of those dots to the DNA, the DNA Doe Project identified the remains as the body of Joseph Henry Loveless. A composite photo of Joseph Henry Loveless along with copies of news stories and extensive details on the process the DNA Doe Project went through can be seen here.
That brings us back to the Clark County Sheriff's Office in Dubois, Idaho, where Sheriff Bart May used the genealogy information to find an 87-year-old grandson of Loveless living in California who had heard stories about his grandparents. He agreed to provide a DNA sample which proved he was indeed a direct second-generation descendant of Joseph Henry Loveless. However, that alone doesn’t prove Loveless killed his wife with an axe, nor does it offer any clues as to who killed Joseph Henry Loveless and cut up his body – the head of which has never been found. Believe it or not, over 100 years after the murder of Agnes and the death of Joseph Loveless, Sheriff May is keeping the case open.
“We'll probably never solve the homicide, but we still encourage anyone who has heard stories to contact our office, you never know what piece of information could help."
Keep that in mind if you’re planning a crime … no matter how good you think you are at escaping and hiding.