Thirty-five years later, one mystery is solved. There’s a body buried in Jerry Daniels’ grave in the Missoula Cemetery.

The next question: Is it his?

Even the skeptics are convinced it is, though Dr. Robert Kurtzman, Montana’s chief medical examiner, continues to analyze evidence in Billings after the body was exhumed for several hours on Oct. 25.

“They requested the press not be there or it could have turned into a circus,” said Kent “Dan” Daniels of Florence, one of Jerry’s three surviving brothers.

As it was, the process at the cemetery, Garden City Funeral Home shop and the state crime lab on Palmer Street in Missoula was a private and by all accounts professional affair. It was conducted under the auspices of Kurtzman and Lt. Jace Dicken, chief deputy coroner for the Missoula County Sheriff’s Office.

Dan Daniels was one of a handful of witnesses who were close to the man who, as an operative for the Central Intelligence Agency, became a living legend to the Hmong people during and after the Secret War in Laos. Jerry “Hog” Daniels disappeared into the realm of folk hero after his death, or alleged death, in a Bangkok apartment in April 1982.

The U.S. State Department, for whom Daniels worked, quickly determined his death to be accidental by carbon monoxide poisoning due to a leaky propane water heater. The body was sent home to Missoula in a sealed coffin and strongly worded orders that it not be opened.

The tapered coffin was lowered into the ground on a Monday, May 10, at the end of an elaborate three-day Hmong funeral process. Even as the last rites were performed, family, friends, colleagues — and especially the Hmong people who Daniels and his mother, Louise, helped resettle in the area — questioned who, if anyone, was inside.

“Any number of times I heard that it could just be a dead hog in there,” said Gayle Morrison, whose 2013 book “Hog’s Exit” examined Daniels’ life through stories of those who knew him, and raised awareness of the questions surrounding his death.

Reported “Jerry” sightings in Montana and around the world fueled speculation that he was still alive and the U.S. government didn’t want it known.

***

Daniels grew up in Helmville and Missoula. He was a U.S. Forest Service smokejumper in 1958 at age 17, the summer before he graduated from Missoula County High School. By age 20, he was a “cargo kicker” for the CIA’s Air America in Laos and went on to become the agency’s closest liaison to Gen. Vang Pao.

For 13 years Vang Pao’s fierce-fighting Hmong guerrillas warded off communist forces while the highly publicized Vietnam War raged next door.

In the days following Saigon’s collapse in Vietnam in the spring of 1975, Daniels was the last American at Long Cheng, the secret CIA-Hmong air base in the mountains of remote northeastern Laos. He engineered a daring air evacuation of Vang Pao and some 2,500 Hmong allies to Thailand.

When he died at age 40, Jerry Daniels had spent half his life in southeast Asia, making a lasting impression on the Hmong people for his courage, devotion, honesty, playfulness and ribaldry.

Three and a half decades later, his hero status remains intact among the Hmong.

Years of efforts by Morrison, Myra Shults, Dan Daniels and others to disinter Daniels’ remains finally bore fruit last month. The weather cooperated and the stars aligned to bring together the key interests — Kurtzman and two doctors from the crime lab in Missoula, a willing and interested sheriff’s department, and personnel from Missoula Rural Fire, stationed at the opening of the coffin in case there were hazmat issues. There weren’t.

Two Hmong men who knew Daniels in Laos and, in the case of one, fought alongside him, witnessed much of the proceedings. They represented the entire Hmong community in the United States, according to author Morrison, who has homes in Santa Ana, California, and Missoula. She headed south earlier in the month, when the exhumation date was still uncertain. While she missed the Oct. 25 proceedings, she kept in touch with Shults throughout.

Several students and an instructor from the University of Montana’s anthropology department were on hand to study the process.

“This was a learning experience for everybody, because stuff like this doesn’t happen very often,” said Shults.

A retired Missoula attorney, Shults went to high school with Jerry Daniels, dated one of his best friends and later became close friends with Louise Daniels.

***

The grave was opened the evening before the exhumation. Dicken said the removal the next morning of a concrete vault that encased the coffin took less than half an hour. It was loaded onto a flatbed and hauled to the funeral home shop at Sunset Gardens, where the lid was removed by machinery and the wooden coffin taken out.

A flower spray with pine needles, wrapped in yellow ribbon, still sat on top the coffin. A family friend from Ovando placed it there in 1982.

On and around the coffin were a number of other items that Dan Daniels remembered and Morrison documented in her book. Still tucked under the spray was the Louis L’Amour book Dan placed. A compass that looked like a wristwatch still hung by a leather strap on a bar at the side. Toby Scott’s snoose can was in there, and T.J. Thompson’s crushed can of Golden Oly beer, among other beer cans. So was the pocketknife that Lee Torgrimson, a Missoula crony, told Morrison he dropped in for Jerry to use for the “stinky Limburger cheese” Daniels coveted during drinking sprees.

Cha Moua, one of the Hmong funeral organizers, held a paper sack of ashes from the burned part of a family money gift.

“After the coffin is lowered into the cement box I say, ‘Jerry, here’s your spirit money that I give to you,’ and I drop it down next to the coffin,” he told Morrison. “Then the cement lid is closed.”

The presence of the documented offerings served to refute a theory that someone had stolen Daniels’ body and replaced it with another. Dicken said he did find it strange that two items that should have been there weren’t. One was a small bottle of Jack Daniel's, the other Loy Olsen’s key-chain elk teeth. And on one end of the coffin was the butt of a cigarette.

“Jerry did not smoke,” the chief deputy coroner said, adding the anomalies might be attributed to the cemetery crew who performed the final burial in 1982.

Screws were removed and a rare lead seal, apparently used in Thailand to prevent leakages and minimize odors, was breached in order to open the coffin. Inside, investigators found the remains enclosed in a covering of coarse cotton or plastic that Dan Daniels said reminded him of a game bag. They had been placed in a custom-fit steel Zeigler case, normally used for transporting human remains without a coffin.

The remains still bore the shirt and pants they were dressed in, and there was enough muscle tissue on the thigh to collect a sample for analysis.

“It was amazing how well-preserved this guy was,” Dicken said.

That struck Shults as odd. The reason given in 1982 to keep the coffin closed was because of the advanced state of decomposition.

“Yet Dr. Kurtzman said the body was in amazingly good condition after 35 years,” she said.

Dan Daniels, Shults and the Hmong are puzzled about another finding, a bundle that lay on the chest of the body. Shults described it as a packet consisting of three layers of things that looked like candles. They were stacked four by four by four. The bottom two layers were dark brown, the other one yellow.

On top was a “rosette sort of thing, tied with a yellow ribbon, that was in perfect condition, like it hadn’t been in a grave for 35 years,” Shults said. “Because of that I felt as if Jerry’s body, if it is Jerry, was treated very respectfully in Thailand,” said Shults.

***

Shults and the Hmong observers excused themselves for the coffin opening. Dan Daniels stayed but said he never viewed the remains, which were transported in their “game bag” to St. Patrick Hospital for a CT scan. The bag was finally opened at the crime lab, after which Kurtzman and the medical crew met with the witnesses for a debriefing. The body was back in its grave at the Missoula Cemetery later that afternoon.

Daniels was surprised at how unemotional he was during the process. He was shown a picture of what he called the “ghoulish face.”

“It looked like somebody out of the monsters from the Black Lagoon,” he said. “It did look more round than I had suspected. But I couldn’t say that it wasn’t him.”

Evidence, though unconfirmed, indicates it was.

“We have a set of remains of an adult Caucasian male,” Dicken said. “Our gut feeling is that it is Jerry Daniels and we found exactly what we thought we’d find.”

To everyone’s relief, there was no sign of bullet or knife wounds, and no evidence of strangulation.

Two front teeth were removed from the skull, and Kurtzman, a professional photographer, returned to Billings with pictures, tissue samples and a femur bone, the marrow of which is best for DNA testing. Dicken has so far been unable to track down dental records in Missoula, but old photos of Daniels obtained from Shults and Jack Daniels, who lives in New York, might be instrumental in establishing a positive identification via irregularities.

Dicken later collected a DNA swab sample from Dan Daniels and sent it to Billings.

Kurtzman, who was out of the office last week, is waiting on a toxicology report. Shults and Daniels said they don’t expect to hear the results for a couple more weeks.

“The examination was a coordinated effort with many folks and another segment of a long story with many unanswered questions,” he said in an email. “It’s a great example of a community working together.”

Morrison, Daniels and Shults all expressed satisfaction with the investigation.

“I think that a lot of appreciation is due the sheriff’s office and the medical examiner’s office,” Shults said. “Without those two offices working together and helping, this would have never happened. Dr. Kurtzman was not only experienced in this disinterment, but he took extreme care to make sure what was done was done in a professional manner.”

Morrison said results of the exhumation so far tell her three things. The grave had not been disturbed, she’s “99 percent sure that it’s Jerry in there,” and it appears he didn’t suffer some “grisly trauma.”

Other questions may never be answered.

Why was the autopsy report in Bangkok “completely sanitized, so there was no information that ever came back to the family?” she wondered.

Why were interviews of potential witnesses redacted “so heavily that they were useless?”

And whatever happened to a Thai boy who was in the other room of the apartment Daniels lived in when he was asphyxiated? The boy was taken to the hospital by Bangkok police, but disappeared with no follow-up interviews or information.

“He was clearly the last person, or one of the last people, to see Jerry alive,” Morrison said.

“Whether or not it happened the way the State Department and embassy say it did we’ll probably never know,” she concluded. “But what is enormously satisfying to me is the Hmong are comfortable with this, they are satisfied with this. Even not being able to confirm exactly how he died, we know it was him.”

It’s a big deal, said Morrison, because a traditional Hmong funeral ceremony can’t be consummated without visual recognition or confirmation of the person due to implications in the spirit world.

“So the fact that it is his body that’s in the casket puts that question to rest. He’s not wandering around the Plain of Jars (in Laos), or was taken captive to Russia or tortured in Vietnam,” Morrison said. “None of those things happened, and that’s of great solace to the Hmong community and to Jerry’s friends and co-workers.”

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Mineral County, Veterans Issues Reporter

Outlying communities, transportation, history and general assignment reporter at the Missoulian