Family grateful after discovery of Peter Greene’s remains
On a steep ravine covered with yellow blooms of balsamroot, tucked beneath a thick crop of sagebrush, the remains of Peter B. Greene were found two weeks ago.
Pete had been missing for more than seven years, since he walked away from an assisted-living facility in Omak.
The long-awaited discovery of his remains on April 11 was great consolation to Pete’s daughters, Mary McIvor, who lives in the Methow Valley; Joanne Lord, of Austin, Texas; and Sharon Marchessault, of Kensington, California. Pete’s identity was confirmed on Monday, April 15.
“We’re so happy — relieved and grateful,” said Mary and Joanne last week after finally getting some closure.
After Joanne flew up from Texas, she and Mary went to the flower-covered hillside on the outskirts of Omak where their father had been found. He’d gone missing from Apple Springs Senior Living on Jan. 2, 2012, at the age of 79.
“It was a beautiful spot,” said Mary. Joanne initially thought someone had already laid flowers at the site, since the balsamroot was so lush.
Despite an intense search-and-rescue operation in the weeks and months after his disappearance, no evidence of Pete’s whereabouts turned up until the property owners happened upon the bones as they were exploring the steep ravine, reportedly looking for signs of a coyote den.
Coping with dementia
Pete had always been a big walker. He’d been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in about 2008 and, before moving to Omak nine months before he disappeared, resided at an assisted-living facility in San Carlos, a small town in California near where Joanne lived at the time.
Since Pete’s dementia was less advanced then, he easily got to know San Carlos. Joanne said she’d often see her father walking around town when she was out with her kids, and they’d exchange waves.
But when Joanne’s husband got a job in Austin, the sisters decided it would be best to move their father to Apple Springs. Mary, who taught at Wenatchee Valley College in Omak, visited her father several times a week, often taking him on longer outings to a lake. For Pete, moving from California to Omak was an adventure, said Mary.
An airplane mechanic in the Korean War, Pete later worked at a bank. He was trained as a computer programmer and was instrumental in creating ATMs in the 1970s. He’d always been logical and practical, said his daughters.
Pete was friendly and social, but could also be kind of moody. “We called him Pete the Hermit,” said Mary. Pete had custody of Joanne and her younger sister, Sharon, when they were teens, after he and their mother divorced. But after that, he spent many decades living on his own. “He called himself a curmudgeon,” said Joanne.
Early in his dementia, Pete devised ways of coping and remained independent. “He was very aware he was losing his abilities — he had taken care of his own mother and father. He knew,” said Joanne. But as the disease progressed, he became more isolated.
The final day
On New Year’s Day 2012 — the day before he disappeared — Pete hadn’t been feeling well. Mary took him to the emergency room, but he just had a cold. “I tucked him in in the afternoon,” she said. “It’s the last time I saw him.”
The next day, he was last seen in his room at the evening check around 8 p.m., and walked out sometime before the alarms would have been set for the night. Despite the sub-freezing weather, he was wearing just a midweight jacket, with sweat pants and tennis shoes but no gloves or hat.
The Okanogan County Sheriff’s Office launched a full-scale search that night. Mary and her husband, Don, spent the night on a couch at Apple Springs.
But the searchers had few clues. Because there was no snow and the ground was frozen, there were no footprints.
The search — a systematic investigation of the area, the river, and even an aerial search performed by volunteer pilots — was unsuccessful. Devastating as it was when the intensive effort was called off after three days, the family knew the police and volunteers had done everything possible, said Mary.
By state law, unless there is a body, you can’t obtain a death certificate until seven years have elapsed. Because you also have to keep up with a person’s finances, Joanne had been handling her father’s accounts. In addition to dealing with official matters, she found herself in the disturbing world of a national database of missing and unidentified persons.
So, after filing her father’s tax return about two weeks ago, Joanne called Mary and they agreed it was time to petition the court to obtain a death certificate.
Mary met with a lawyer the following day. The lawyer called Okanogan County Coroner Dave Rodriguez to start the legal process. But the next day, Rodriguez got a call from people who’d found human bones on the edge of their property.
After all those years, the timing was eerie. “It’s just one of those cosmic things you sometimes run into — and don’t have an answer to,” said Rodriguez.
As the property owners poked around the ravine, they came upon what they imagined were animal bones. The first clue that it was something different was the sunlight glinting off Pete’s gold teeth. Then they saw remnants of clothing, and shoes still on his feet. They remembered the story of Pete’s disappearance and called the sheriff.
“Our general feeling is — family-wide — thank goodness,” said Mary. “We have been hoping and waiting, and imagined we would never find him.”
Mary and Joanne wanted to see their father’s bones, which were laid out — a nearly complete skeleton — at the county morgue. Rodriguez wondered how they’d react, and even tried to discourage them.
They knew it wouldn’t be like a funeral home with a soothing backdrop of music and velvet, said Mary. “But it was what it was. It was sort of gracefully beautiful,” she said. “It was earthy and natural, even though the bones were on a plastic sheet,” said Joanne.
“He was so clearly gone, and a long time ago,” said Mary. “Still, it was a way to make it really concrete — that’s Dad.”
“We have our sad moments — we’re not devastated, but really sad. We get to acknowledge the loss,” she said.
Search never stopped
It’s extremely rare for someone to be missing for that long, said Rodriguez. In his nearly three decades with the Sheriff’s Office — the last five as coroner — this was the only case where they hadn’t found someone, he said. Typically, the only situations where searchers don’t locate a body are when they know someone has been swept away by river currents.
The initial search for Pete went on for months, and officers were still checking databases and following up on tips until this year, said Rodriguez. A cop could be lying in bed and wonder if they’d checked a particular area, and simply had to investigate to be sure, he said.
“We can’t change the fact that Mr. Greene died,” said Rodriguez. “But we have a desire and an obligation to give answers to his family about his life. Your mind can go crazy, if you can’t find out what happened. It’s a great relief.”
“I’ve been processing this for seven years,” said Joanne. With no body and no details, it was hard not to speculate that their father may have met with foul play.
It’s unusual to collect such a complete skeleton, since bones typically get scattered over time. But Pete’s body was in a protected spot, about 40 feet below a flat bench. The sagebrush was so thick that it was hard to walk, said Rodriguez.
“He just fell asleep. He died of hypothermia — just slipped away under the stars on a clear night,” said Mary. “It’s nice to know he was here the whole time, lying in a beautiful spot.