Science has confirmed what his brother and others suspected: The body buried in the Missoula Cemetery for the last 37½ years is that of Jerry “Hog” Daniels of Missoula.
The rest of his death story is a matter of faith.
DNA testing at a private laboratory in Virginia proved with 99.997% probability the casket holds the remains of the smokejumper and CIA operative who died in Thailand in 1982. Daniels was working for the U.S. State Department at the time, serving Hmong refugees displaced after the Secret War in Laos.
“I’m glad to know it. I’m pretty convinced that everything’s the way it is," Kent “Dan” Daniels of Florence said receiving the report Tuesday from state chief medical examiner Rob Kurtzman. "It’s just how he died is the question now.”
“I think it confirms that Jerry is in the casket, which I always believed because Rob Kurtzman was so positive,” said Missoula attorney Myra Shults, a high school classmate of Jerry Daniels and a friend of his late mother Louise. “I can’t possibly think that .003 difference makes a difference.”
Dan Daniels provided a saliva sample after the body was exhumed for a few hours in late October 2017. The autospy by Kurtzman and other officials had proven two things: The casket wasn’t empty and the body inside hadn’t died by violent means.
There remained doubts among family, friends and the Hmong community about the identity and manner of death. The most recent finding clears up the former.
Official records said Daniels, working as an ethnic affairs officer, died on April 28, 1982, of accidental carbon monoxide poisoning from a leaky propane water heater in his apartment in Bangkok.
Jack Daniels, the oldest of the Daniels brother and a world-renowned exercise physiologist and running coach, leads the doubters of that cause of death. He says the high concentration of carbon monoxide reported in Jerry’s body, which wasn’t discovered for three days, doesn’t fit with the fact that an unidentified man found unconscious in the next room survived. The man disappeared from the hospital before he could be questioned.
Because of decomposition, Daniels’ casket was ordered sealed for transport home to Missoula, where it was buried in a traditional three-day Hmong funeral. After examining the body in 2017, Kurtzman expressed surprise over how much tissue remained. It made a DNA comparison feasible.
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Alternate scenarios have been posed to explain Jerry Daniels’ death. They range from suicide to murder by an array of suspects to death by yellow rain.
“I know this day has been long awaited and I hope it provides some closure for at least some parts of Jerry’s legacy,” Kurtzman said in a note to Dan Daniels and Shults that accompanied the results. “Unquestionably there may be some questions that linger, but at least you can now know with certainty that Jerry is ‘home.’”
Many Hmong people adopted the irreverent but intensely loyal Daniels as one of their own when he coordinated covert resistance efforts against Communist forces and their sympathizers in Laos during the Vietnam War. He and Maj. Gen. Vang Pao were on the last helicopter out of Long Tieng, the Laotian military stronghold, when some 2,500 Hmong leaders and their families were evacuated to Thailand in May 1975.
Daniels then led State Department efforts to resettle Vang Pao and thousands of his followers in the United States. Hundreds of them, including Vang Pao and his extended family for a time, came to the Missoula area as Daniels worked with his mother to find them homes. Louise Daniels died in 1996.
Dan Daniels, Shults and others who are intrigued with the mystery of Jerry Daniels' death spent nearly two years waiting on the DNA report from a lab in Texas. They learned in September that Bode Technology in Virginia, the nation’s largest private forensics lab, could handle the job for $2,300 to $2,400. A family friend, Rose Field, set up a GoFundMe page to help pay for it. Dan Daniels thanked the ex-smokejumpers, military veterans, friends of Jerry’s and his own family members who chipped in.
“Jerry was truly an outstanding person for what he did for that community in the U.S., and I know he’s revered by the Hmong,” Shults said. “It’s just too bad that the autopsy didn’t show more about the cause of death. Rob (Kurtzman) could tell that Jerry had been autopsied in Thailand, although their techniques were a lot more primitive. Unfortunately, it was all redacted in the report.”
Who’s to say what it uncovered? she wondered.
“He could have been poisoned with some obscure Oriental jungle poison or something and our toxicology now wouldn’t have the ability to pick it up. I think I agree with Jack that it was questionable whether that amount of carbon monoxide could have built up in the apartment."
Nonetheless, Shults said, "Jerry is dead and his body’s in Missoula. That’s what’s important to me to know, that Jerry’s body is here, because Louise wanted to be with him.”