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HELENA — The family of a New Mexico airman who vanished in the mountains of Montana gained closure one day and 43 years after his disappearance.

On June 15, 1974, Rudy Redd Victor jumped out of a car heading through Wolf Creek Canyon. The 20-year-old was never seen again.

Friday, his sister received a letter from the Air Force saying his remains have been found and identified. Burial plans are in progress.

Victor was listed as a military deserter. With no signs of him, the FBI closed his case four years later.

A decade after he fled the car during a fight with his girlfriend, with whom Victor was traveling on their way back to his family’s home in Colorado, a skull was turned into the Lewis and Clark County coroner.

The skull was actually first found two years prior in the same canyon by a brand inspector, who kept the skull as a souvenir of sorts after locating it while wrangling cattle on the steep hillside in 1982.

Investigators visited the hillside and found more remains, including the lower jaw. They also found a cross with a turquoise center and remnants of a red T-shirt next to a pine tree.

Tests were conducted and anthropology students determined the skull belonged to a man in his 20s, who was likely of Native American descent. Although some identifiers that pointed to the missing airman were noted, the skull remained nameless.

The remains were cataloged and shelved.

Over the decades, a handful of potential matches were tested but none proved conclusive.

Last year, Air Force investigators with a cold case unit reviewed the file and loaded Victor’s information into the National Missing and Unidentified Person System.

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“Unfortunately, some cases go cold due to lack of investigative leads, so they remain unsolved for incredible lengths of time,” said John Fine, a cold case investigator for the Air Force.

On June 8, Victor’s dental records were confirmed as a match for the skull found in Wolf Creek. The Montana medical examiner had entered the information for the unidentified skull in 2014.

“That’s when bells started ringing,” Lewis and Clark County Coroner Bryan Backeberg said.

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Air Force investigators traveled to Wolf Creek to see the hillside where Victor’s remains were found. They, alongside the county coroner, a detective in the original case and others, climbed the steep terrain to the tree where it is believed Victor died. During the initial investigation into the case, officials found a wire noose hanging from the tree. Suicide is suspected.

“Everything is leaning that way; 40 years later, we just don’t know,’ Backeberg said.

The official death certificate lists the cause of death as undetermined.

Backeberg said no evidence of foul play was ever found. But, he added, sufficient artifacts have not developed a clear picture of what lead to Victor’s death.

“This is a case where the original investigation was conducted well, with technology available, and our coroner’s office was able to take advantage of this new technology to identify the unknown remains they’ve been holding for quite some time now,” Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton said. “It is satisfying to see a mystery somewhat solved.”

The county coroner concluded Victor likely died either the day he leapt from the car or shortly afterward.

The investigation determined Victor died while on leave, therefore he is no longer listed as absent without leave.

Victor’s military record has been corrected to remove his deserter status.

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