MATTOON, Ill — In 2017, mysterious bones discovered in a military footlocker in Wyoming were positively identified as those of Joseph Mulvaney, a World War II veteran of the Illinois National Guard.
After his National Guard service, Mulvaney took a job with the railroad but disappeared in 1963 in Des Moines, Iowa. His children were initially told that he had simply wandered off. However, a different story emerged through his granddaughter, Shelley Statler, and an unexpected discovery with a grocery bag.
Curiosity Revealed a Mystery:
In 1986, Morris entrusted Sessions with a footlocker to hold while he was out of town, but Morris disappeared for six years without reclaiming it. On Halloween in 1992, Sessions finally managed to open the securely padlocked footlocker out of curiosity. He was then urged by his wife to contact Hot Springs County Sheriff in Wyoming, John Lumley.
Lumley was the Sheriff at the time and was also one of the detectives on the case. Lumley would also be later interviewed for the TV show, Unsolved Mysteries. To see the episode start at time maker 36:50.
The episode was called “Gabby’s Bones,” and, at the time the episode was being aired, they didn’t know “Gabby” was an alias for Morris. In the episode, Sessions admitted to contacting Morris first before the officials. Morris told Sessions that he never opened the box.
The case went unsolved for 55 years. Even after the episode aired, there were public calls with tips, but none of them were helpful. It wasn’t until later that Statler contacted Hot Springs County officials about the bones, and she hadn’t seen the episode at that time.
What’s in the Box:
In the military footlocker were bones, a skull with what looked like a gunshot, and a rotting grocery bag from HyVee. The grocery bag will help be a clue in this mystery, since HyVee only has eight Midwestern States, none of them are in Wyoming, but they are in Iowa.
This clue would lead investigators to Iowa, but the remains would remain unidentified for 24 more years, but eventually the bones would be identified as those of Mulvaney who disappeared from Des Moines in 1963. His daughter would use her DNA to positively identify the bones.
An x-ray machine was used to look at the skull two days after the cops took the footlocker. The tests showed that there was a bullet in the head.
“He was found in a military trunk, and I think it was his. I also think his own gun was used to kill him,” said Statler in a FOX 2 interview.
Sheriff Lumley thought he might be dealing with a murder case.
“The detective here in Iowa traveled to where John Morris lived to question him,” said Statler.
Morris wasn’t consistent about the specifics. He said the trunk could have been bought in Wyoming, Iowa, Illinois, or even Oklahoma. It could have been as early as 1973, but he also wasn’t sure.
Lumley didn’t think it could have been Morris who murdered the man. He said in the Unsolved Mysteries episode that he believed Morris, who was in his mid-forties, was associated with a footlocker and the lock dating back to the ’30s.
He did not believe that Morris was responsible for the individual’s death, but Lumley thought there is a suspicion that he possessed information regarding the identity or origin of the person found in the trunk.
“He finally admitted he knew who the remains belonged to and said he had nothing to do with it but that it happened when living in Iowa,” said Statler.
Murder Still Unsolved
Hot Springs County detectives never considered Morris a suspect in the murder of Mulvaney. The mystery about who murdered Mulvaney has never been solved, no one has officially been charged with the murder of Mulvaney.
The mystery of identifying the bones has been solved, thanks to Statler. In 2017, officials agreed to test Statler’s mother’s DNA against the bones. It was a 99 percent match — which makes this a confident match in DNA science.
“We had an issue with getting the remains released from Wyoming to come back to Iowa. We had positive identification in October 2017 that the remains belonged to my grandpa, Joseph Junior Mulvaney,” said Statler.
Identifying the Remains:
According to the Des Moines Register, Mulvaney was born on January 3, 1921, in Mattoon, Illinois. He enlisted in the Illinois National Guard in Decatur in 1941 and served with the 130th Infantry, 33rd Division during World War II. His deployment from 1941 to 1945 took him to various locations, including Australia and the Philippines.
During World War II, Mulvaney served as an Illinois Army National Guard Technician 5 in the Pacific Theater.
“An article came out in the Des Moines register paper after my grandpa’s remains were found in Wyoming, I believe the article was written in 1991, my dad showed me the article and said I think this is your grandpa,” said Statler.
“I was 20 years old when my dad showed me the article, didn’t really think too much about any of it. I would revisit the information as I got older and had my own kids. I believe timing is everything, and it was time in 2017 to get to the bottom of the family trauma. I contacted the officials around September 2017 to tell them I thought this was my grandpa.”
Statler goes on to explain how her grandparents met. When they met, her grandma already had a son from a previous marriage, his name was John David Morris.
“They had three kids together My mom, Kathy, Uncle Joe, and Patrick Michael. They were born in California and moved to Iowa where Nanny’s family lived,” said Statler. “My grandpa was from Illinois.”
Statler said that she found documents that they had purchased the house on 50th street on contract in 1963.
“That was the house he was murdered in and buried in the yard. He was dug back up before they moved in 1968, he was missing the bones below his knees on both legs. I believe they are still buried at the house,” said Statler.
Statler said that their family was complicated.
“I honestly think that my grandpa and nanny didn’t have a healthy relationship, a lot of fighting, I think she was seeing someone on the side and my grandpa and John, his stepson, didn’t get along,” Statler said. “John was 16 years old. I think they were having power struggles and were fighting.”
Statler said that her grandpa wasn’t close to any family back in Illinois and had moved away from California where he worked for the railroad.
“His mom had passed away when he was away fighting in the Philippines in World War II in 1945,” said Statler. “His dad passed away in 1962 right before he was murdered. They were his lifeline, his parents, kids and wife.”
Mulvaney just disappeared, he was never reported a missing person.
“My nanny would tell everyone that he just left and moved back to California,” Statler said. “My mom’s and her brother’s life changed dramatically after their dad disappeared. With John in charge my mom said life was pretty much a horror story.”
Statler said that her mom would never feel safe, she ended up with addictions to alcohol and learned from an early age that life was so completely unfair.
“I honestly hoped my mom would find closure with all of this, but I really don’t know if she ever did while she was here,” said Statler. “She joined her dad in heaven on May 16th, 2022, so I believe they are together again and that gives me so much peace.”
Finally, a Military Ceremony:
“The remains were finally released at the end of 2018 and there was a military service for my grandpa in Wyoming in March 2019,” said Statler. “One of the best days of my life celebrating the man I had never met but loved so very much. My husband, I and 3 kids traveled to attend the memorial service.”
On Friday, March 29, 2019, Mulvaney got a military funeral after 56 years. The memorial service was held at Ballard Funeral Home in Cody, Wyoming. At the service they gave Mulvaney full military rites, which included a 21-gun salute.