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A cold case is solved 38 years later

Wayne Heath_cold case with wings
NaCoal Heath
The cold case of Wayne Heath from April 1, 1986 is finally solved through advancements in DNA technology. His family is notified April 1, 2024.

BONNEVILLE COUNTY, Idaho (KXPI/KIFI) - A cold case from 1986 is finally solved through advancements in DNA technology. News anchor Todd Kunz visited with the daughter of the man who disappeared on a fishing trip. Now she knows what happened 38 years ago.

April 1, 1986, Wayne Heath and his buddy launched their boat from the boat ramp below the Palisades Dam in Bonneville County, Idaho. They were hoping for a fun day of fishing. They had no idea that only one of them would be coming home.

"You said he's here?" asked Kunz to NaCoal Heath, daughter of Wayne, as they sit a picnic table in the area of his disappearance.

"Mmm hmm. This is where he's at," replied NaCoal.

She describes her father's final hours before he jumped out of his sinking fishing boat into the cold waters of the snake river, never to be seen again. 

"This is the area right here?" asked Kunz.

"Yeah. This is where he docked in," replied NaCoal, pointing across the water.

"The boat ramp?" asked Kunz.

"Yep. And over here is where they were fishing. And that's the dam that was opened up. And they were out here somewhere. And then the rotor got caught in the anchor rope and started pulling it down. And I guess his buddy jumped front of the boat in. And my dad went in the back, down," said NaCoal, now pointing downstream.

"They didn't find your dad?" said Kunz.

"No," said NaCoal.

"And they search for..." asked Kunz, his question trailing off.

"Long time. Yeah," said NaCoal.

"Divers?" asked Kunz.

"Divers, dogs, everything. They've done more than one search. They've done a lot of searches," replied NaCoal.

"April 1, 1986. You get that awful, awful news. I can't imagine you were very old at the time," said Kunz.

"I was 11," said NaCoal.

"Do you remember what that was like?" asked Kunz.

"Yep. I was sitting on the kitchen floor, playing with my dolls, and the phone rang and my mom reached over and grabbed the phone off the wall. She sat at the kitchen table. And she said, 'What?' And caught my attention. And my brother came around the corner and my sister was sitting on the other side and she said, 'Wayne did what?' And she just kind of dropped the phone and she just started crying and said, 'Your dad's gone, guys.' And we didn't understand it. My sister took off out the door, and I just froze. I didn't know. And then a few days later, they explained the whole thing to me, and we watched it on the news. We came up to Pocatello and sat with the family," said NaCoal.

The case went cold.

Then June 2009, a new, yet still unknown development. A property owner, 40 river miles downstream in Jefferson County, found a human tibia bone on a sand bar.

"That's where they found it. That's the site right there," said NaCoal, pulling a large photo from her black binder of memories. The bone was eventually turned over to law enforcement.

In 2013, the University of Texas Health Sciences Department mapped a DNA profile of the tibia bone and entered its genetic data into the unidentified human remains index of the National Combined DNA Index System or CODIS. 

In February 2024, the Bonneville County Sheriff’s Office received notification from UNT that the genetic data associated with the tibia bone had been linked to family DNA reference samples from Wayne Heath’s natural son and sister thanks to advancements in DNA technology.

Then April 1, 2024, 38 years to the day, NaCoal got the call from law enforcement and Idaho Cold Cases that the remains of her father had been found.

"You come here every year. And for 38 years, you've come here with a certain emotion," said Kunz.

"I still have it," said NaCoal.

"And you still have that. But now there's an added emotion. Here we are. What's this like today?" asked Kunz, pointing to the surroundings.

"It's surreal. I actually got some answers. I always dreamed he'd come to the door and say 'hi,' but it didn't work out that way for us," said NaCoal.

"Better now that you know this new information," asked Kunz.

"Now I have more closure. Know where he is. I know him and my mom are together again," replied NaCoal.

"You've found a way to be connected to your father," said Kunz, pointing to her black binder.

"Absolutely," smiled NaCoal.

"For the last 38 years," stated Kunz.

"I have I have a lot of chain links in there. I just started trying to find out who my dad was and try to do a different type of closure," said NaCoal, referring to the black binder.

In it, NaCoal has research and family history, photos, articles, and many connections to her father.

"Oh, those are nice," said Kunz, as NaCoal pulls out photo after photo.

"You like my notes?" asked NaCoal, showing off all her years of work.

"Yeah. Those are very nice," said Kunz.

"There's my brother," said NaCoal, showing another photo.

A 1967 graduate of Highland High School in Pocatello, Wayne Heath enlisted with the Army in 1968.

"That's a nice photo," said Kunz, looking at Heath's military photograph.

"Yeah. This is where he graduated training," said NaCoal, showing another photo from her father's military days.

Wayne Heath was a helicopter mechanic in Vietnam. He received awards. One of the awards came from the White House with a certificate from the president at the time, in honor of him being under fire, and saving people.

Wayne Heath would later marry Wanda Mendenhall and start a family back at home in Pocatello, Idaho.

"You remember one (photo) that you were together last for your birthday?" asked Kunz.

"Yeah. We were at the restaurant," said NaCoal.

"You have a photo of that?" asked Kunz.

"I do. And I cherish it all the time. Look at it all the time," said NaCoal.

"There's me and my dad," said NaCoal, pulling the photo out of the binder.

NaCoal and Kunz walk along the Snake River one last time.

"It actually has a peaceful sound to me," said NaCoal.

"Does it?" asked Kunz.

"Yeah. It's more calming in my heart now" said NaCoal.

"I knew today wasn't going to be easy for you," said Kunz.

"It's never easy. It never will be easy," said NaCoal.

"I want you to know I'm grateful you were willing to. I empathize with you. I do," said Kunz.

"Thank you. It's hard," said NaCoal.

"It is a pretty day, though," said Kunz, smiling.

"It's a beautiful day. Every day is a beautiful day," NaCoal laughed.

"Thank you," said Kunz, putting his arm around NaCoal as they walked back.

"You're welcome. Thank you," said NaCoal, wiping away tears.

NaCoal said detectives were planning to take her to the location where her father's tibia bone was found, but right now this spring, the water in the channel is too high because of the runoff. They have rescheduled for this fall when the water drops.

Kunz plans to keep in touch with NaCoal and follow up at that time.

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Todd Kunz

Todd is an anchor for Local News 8.


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