A man accused of rape vanished; a lake yielded a discovery 25 years later

Dec 19, 2023, 11:09 AM

Roger Dale Parham was arrested in late 1998 on a charge of rape involving a minor, the bureau said....

Roger Dale Parham was arrested in late 1998 on a charge of rape involving a minor, the bureau said. (Kentucky State Police)

(Kentucky State Police)

(CNN) He was known as very charming, the FBI’s description read: an odd-job man, an antiques peddler, maybe interested in photography.

Then, there was the accusation: Roger Dale Parham was arrested in late 1998 on a charge of rape involving a minor, the bureau said. The crime was alleged in Arkansas, where a court released the 52-year-old on bond. A “trial on various criminal charges” had been set, police later would say.

Soon, though, the laborer – who’d often preferred to be paid in cash – was gone, “thought to have left the area to flee prosecution,” police said. The state court issued a warrant for Parham’s arrest, the FBI said. And the feds a few months later charged him with unlawful flight to avoid prosecution.

Then, as the early stages of the fugitive hunt unfolded, another pursuit began taking shape – this one two states away, on a lake known for its wildlife viewing, boating and hiking trails.

Like the search for Parham, resolving this quest would depend on law enforcement. As worthy efforts so often do, it also would require playing the long game. And in the end, it would reveal new questions that could take years more to satisfy.

But none of that was clear on the Thursday in May 1999 when two fishermen in Kentucky made their discovery.

And it was a strange one.

‘May have traveled to Mexico’

The body almost certainly had been meant to sink in Lake Barkley.

Whoever it was had been “wrapped in heavy tire chains,” state police said. As if that weren’t enough, the body also was “anchored with a hydraulic jack.”

But investigators even then – near the turn of the new century – had only traditional investigative techniques at their disposal, police said. And those tools weren’t enough to identify the remains.

So, they secured the anonymous body – and went on with the work of police.

All the while, law enforcement in Arkansas’ Sebastian County, its seat of Fort Smith and in the FBI’s Little Rock field office kept hunting for Roger Dale Parham.

“He may have traveled to Mexico,” the FBI said on its “Wanted” poster, where a circa-1997 photo in the center showed the fugitive: White man; brown hair, parted severely on the left; blue eyes behind aviator-style frames.

The bureau advised anyone with information about Parham to contact a local FBI office “or the nearest American Embassy or Consulate.”

“Unlawful Flight to Avoid Prosecution – Rape, Failure to Appear,” was printed above key details about the missing man: 5-foot-10; 225 pounds; National Crime Information Center ID W950143040.

The FBI sought the public's help in finding Parham. (FBI)

The FBI sought the public’s help in finding Parham. (FBI)

New details offer critical clues

For more than a decade, there was no trace of Parham. In that time, though, a break in the other missing person case had become more likely – or so It seemed.

With DNA technology, dental exams, forensic pathology and other advanced forensic testing at their fingertips, law enforcement in Kentucky in 2016 exhumed the body pulled from Lake Barkley “in hopes that further examinations would help make an identification,” state police said.

But none of those techniques worked, they said. “(T)he victim remained unidentified.”

In early 2017 authorities also took another new step: Entering a profile for the remains into the National Missing and Unidentified Person System, case #UP75. The one-page report contained more detail about the victim discovered “floating in Lake Barkley.”

He’d had gold crowns and a permanent bridge, wore an extra-large T-shirt with a “No Fear Sports Bar” logo, a Dallas Cowboys’ windbreaker and 10 1/2 wide Voit tennis shoes.

He’d also had brown hair. He was between 35 and 50 years old, the report said. And he stood between 5-foot-6 and 6-foot-1, at 235 to 255 pounds.

One mystery solved. A new one emerges

Still, nobody could find Parham.

Then early this year, Kentucky State Police engaged a private lab that specializes in forensic genealogy, which combines DNA evidence data with traditional genealogy – often with use of public documents to build out family trees – to find biological connections among people.

Similar searches have been used to link victims to criminals such as the Happy Face Killer, who murdered at least eight women, and the Golden State Killer, suspected of a dozen homicides and over 50 rapes, as well as to a woman who’d wondered her whole life why her mother had vanished when she was 1.

Advanced genealogy DNA testing of the Lake Barkley remains by the private lab, Othram Inc., and the National Missing and Unidentified Person System yielded a link to a relative of the unidentified body, police said.

Investigators connected the genealogical dots and were able to “identify the remains,” they said:

The body belonged to Roger Dale Parham.

“Until now,” the Kentucky police said, “Parham’s disappearance remained a mystery.”

A little more research led investigators back to Arkansas to learn Parham had been awaiting trial, they said.

The manhunt, finally, was over.

Still, Parham’s cause of death remains undetermined, police said. And given the state in which his body was found, the case – now a quarter-century old – has spawned yet another mystery.

“Due to the suspicious circumstances in which the remains were located,” police said, “this case is being investigated as a homicide.”

CNN’s Amanda Jackson contributed to this report. 

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A man accused of rape vanished; a lake yielded a discovery 25 years later