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Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Homicide victim Donald Boardman is seen in this photo copied from the cold case file.

SOUTH PITTSBURG, Tenn. — After nearly four decades, a man's body found in Tennessee off Interstate 24 near South Pittsburg has a name and a missing Georgia man's family has an answer.

Donald Boardman had been a question mark after vanishing 37 years ago and his body would have remained a "John Doe" if not for a steadfast investigator who never gave up on the case, a curious stay-at-home mom who scratched out a trail to his identity and a Georgia criminal analyst who was in the right place when the decades-old cold case started coming together.

Boardman was a snappy dresser with a new 1985 Chevrolet Camaro Z28 when he disappeared following an event at the Atlanta Convention Center. Then the body of an unknown well-dressed man was found in Tennessee with no name and no family.

(READ MORE: TBI, Grundy County authorities tracking new leads in 1999 cold case disappearance of Tim White)

The investigation into Boardman's disappearance — reported after he was last heard from Nov. 16, 1985, in Chamblee, Georgia — grew cold over the years until 2018, when a Sewanee, Tennessee, woman spotted a Chattanooga Times Free Press story on social media that roused her curiosity.

An intriguing story

The article was about a cold case that 12th Judicial District Attorney's Office investigator Larry B. Davis wanted to revive in hopes of putting a name to a half-skeletal body discovered by an angler in 1985 along a Marion County creek just a few steps from I-24.

The story was on two bodies discovered in the mid-1980s, one that was identified not long after it was discovered and another that would eventually be identified as Boardman, believed initially to have been linked by a common killer to each other and other bodies that were found in those years across Southeast Tennessee.

While skeletal from the waist up, the unidentified body was clad in an expensive Oxford cloth shirt and new Jordache blue jeans, Davis said recently in an interview at the District Attorney's Office in Dayton, Tennessee.

In 1985, William M. Bass at the University of Tennessee Forensic Anthropology Center determined the body had been where it was found Dec. 16, 1985, for about 30 days, a period Davis said was accurate relative to the date authorities later learned Boardman had last spoken to his family. Bass and Lee Jantz, the center's associate director, were instrumental in collecting the evidence that would help later help identify Boardman, Davis said.

Davis, 69, was 32 when he was part of the original investigation in 1985. He said it lingered in his mind because he knew there was a family somewhere that didn't know what happened to their loved one. In December 2017, he approached the Times Free Press to work on a story about the cold case that ran Jan. 29, 2018.

Sewanee resident Barbara King Ladd spotted the Times Free Press story on her Facebook feed.

Ladd, who works for the Franklin County school system and in the past worked for the local judicial district's drug court, said divine guidance was at work.

"From my perspective, God obviously put this case on Larry's heart," Ladd said recently in a telephone interview.

After reading about the case, Ladd said God had put Boardman's case on her heart, too.

"I found the story in my Facebook feed, so I clicked on it and read it and then it put it on my heart and piqued my curiosity, and if something grabs my curiosity, I will follow it through until it gets boring to me," she said.

Ladd, 43, began combing through missing persons websites for likely candidates based on information in the Times Free Press article. She said she was a stay-at-home mom at the time with lots of time for internet sleuthing.

"The forensic sketch and the picture of Donald Boardman was just perfect," she said of when she found intriguing information on a missing persons website that seemed to have similarities to the body in Marion County.

As she searched Boardman's name in a portion of another news story, Ladd found a detective connected with the case, but she didn't immediately see the agency he worked for, she said. There was information about Boardman living in DeKalb County, Georgia, his identification and some clothing being found inside his car that had been reported stolen, she said.

(READ MORE: Investigators identify Dade County homicide victim after nearly 34 years)

She was increasingly convinced she was on the right trail.

Ladd said no more than a day or two after reading the story she sent a couple of emails to the 12th Judicial District Attorney's Office but they'd gone unread, she initially decided.

But soon, Davis emailed back about the Boardman information and told her he had taken that information to Tennessee Bureau of Investigation's Fusion Center in Nashville, but she never heard anything back after that. In Tennessee, the information met a dead end for lack of fingerprints or DNA evidence at the time to link to anyone, so the case idled, according to investigators.

"That's when I said, I'm going to take all this information and send it directly to Chamblee," Ladd said.

In late April 2021, Ladd decided to send the Marion County information through a Facebook message to Chamblee police.

"I intentionally decided to send it through Facebook so that the person who received it would know it was a real person and see my picture and know that I wasn't crazy," she said. "I think it was God's hand again that the message went to Lori [Bradburn], who read the information and became interested in it."

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Cold case

Georgia connection

Chamblee Police Department criminal analyst Lori Bradburn was performing a routine check that day on the department Facebook page.

"I got a random message on our police department's Facebook page that said, 'I am pretty sure I have information regarding this cold case,'" Bradburn said during a recent interview at the 12th Judicial District Attorney's Office in Dayton.

Bradburn, 34, unfamiliar with the 1985 investigation, started taking a new look at the case file and compared her information with the case details in the Times Free Press story.

Bradburn then began digging for case information on her end and got in touch with Davis to compare notes that would lead to answers, she said.

During the interview in Dayton, District Attorney Mike Taylor said help from the public is a common key to solving mysteries like Boardman's.

"I personally commend the private citizen who gave her time and resources to help us a tremendous amount in solving this case. She did her civic duty and became involved of her own free will," Taylor said.

Davis credits Ladd for her persistence.

"I'm so glad she went to the source and gave her thoughts to Lori," Davis said. "If she hadn't, I'd still be looking for Donald."

Ladd said she was glad to have played a part along with the investigators and family.

"I think it's really cool that God used me to play a part in this. It's one of the coolest things that God has ever included me in," she said.

"There's Larry, who had the sense to get a really great forensic drawing of him and to over the years keep pushing the case so it wasn't a dead file, right? Then he had the notion to contact you [the Times Free Press] to do the article," Ladd said.

Bradburn and Davis began fitting the pieces together from case information going back more than 30 years.

Police reports

According to a 1985 Chamblee Police Department report, Harry Boardman, Donald's father, filed a missing person report Nov. 19, 1985, stating the last time he spoke with his son was three days earlier on the night of Nov. 16, 1985. Boardman's employer at his new job in Atlanta at Miller and Zell Designs also hadn't seen him since that same day.

The Chamblee police report said Boardman had a 1985 Chevrolet Camaro Z28. Chamblee police would soon hear from police in East Point, Georgia, where Boardman's car turned up in the possession of three people, two of whom had extensive criminal records, according to Bradburn and the report.

(READ MORE: Dunlap police hire help in 2018 missing persons cases as authorities say there are persons of interest)

On Nov. 29, 1985, an East Point police 0fficer saw two men and a woman who appeared intoxicated get into a 1985 Camaro bearing Boardman's license plate that was parked at a barbecue restaurant. The tag was identified as being registered to a car that had been reported stolen to Chamblee police, according to the East Point police report.

"The tag info had revealed that the vehicle was wanted by Chamblee P.D. in connection with a missing person, foul play suspected," the report states.

The male driver and the two passengers were detained by police while their names were checked for active warrants. The woman was found to have an outstanding warrant on a charge of armed robbery in Atlanta, the report states.

The three were detained for questioning by Chamblee police. East Point officers while searching Boardman's Camaro found a Visa card with Boardman's name on it under the left rear seat where the male passenger had been sitting, according to the report.

Investigators at the time sought connections between the missing man and the trio found with his car and found Boardman's Visa was used after he was reported missing to make a variety of purchases from gas stations, two department stores and two Chevrolet dealerships, according to 1985 police reports.

Other purchases using the card were made at a motorcycle salvage shop with descriptions matching the trio found with Boardman's car, the reports state. Since 1985, the two men have died but the woman still lives.

Bradburn said Saturday she has found no evidence or documents indicating the three were charged in connection with the matter. She's still doing a deep dive into police records, and investigators are looking ahead to next steps.

After joining forces, Bradburn and Davis decided last summer to contact Boardman's sister and work toward a DNA test.

The forensic center in Knoxville in 2009 extracted DNA from a tooth, and after Bradburn contacted Davis in July 2021, the two were convinced it was time to find one of Boardman's family members for testing.

He had only one, a sister, and her DNA matched the body's in a mitochondrial test performed late in 2021, but Taylor and Jantz wanted a more conclusive "short random repeat" test, which is a form of DNA testing that yields high match statistics, according to officials.

The final word on that test came in February, when the more definitive test resulted in a match confirming Boardman's identity.

Sister has answers

In Plantation, Florida, Debbie Boardman Anderson, now 70, has waited most of her adult life for an answer, she said in telephone interviews Wednesday and Thursday.

Anderson was more than stunned by the news it was possible her brother's body had been found.

"Larry Davis called in July. I know they had been working on it, but for me, it was out of the clear blue sky. I was not expecting it," she said. "There were so many things going through my mind — shock, happiness, relief and grief all at the same time. I was sobbing on the phone. I put down the phone, and I went and told my husband, Mike."

(READ MORE: Cleveland man identified as murder suspect in 1985 cold case slaying)

Anderson had been in a minor car accident the week before. At the moment Davis called, she and her husband were getting ready to go pick up a rental car, she said. Those plans and the previous week evaporated from her mind.

"I got immediate amnesia at that point," she said, "and I was told afterwards that it could be a combination of minor head trauma and stress, hearing some incredibly stressful news.

"I mean, amnesia? That's something you see in the movies."

Anderson suddenly couldn't recall the accident or the plans to get a rental car.

"For two or three hours, my husband said I had no clue what was going on," she said. "He took me downstairs and showed me the car, and I said, 'Oh, my God, what happened? What happened to our brand-new Tesla?'"

She regained her composure after a few hours, she said.

Anderson said she thought she would never know what happened to her brother.

The last time the family heard from him was in November 1985.

"It was right before Thanksgiving, and he had just talked to my mother about coming home for Thanksgiving," she said. "He told her he was going to the convention center in Atlanta to go to a health food show. He was very into eating healthy, and that's what he did that night."

The family expected to see him soon, but they instead got a call from her brother's employer, who told them Donald Boardman hadn't shown up for work.

"I just told my husband that I've always had a sixth sense about my brother. I knew him really well, and I just knew something was wrong," she said of her thoughts at the time. "It was a new job, and he loved it. He couldn't wait to go to work. He'd just gotten a new car."

(READ MORE: 20-year-old cold case of Chattanooga boy's killing reopened with help of FBI)

She said her brother's personality might have made him vulnerable.

"What's so frustrating about this is my brother was just such a nice guy, and he probably couldn't believe what was going on," Anderson said. "Thank goodness I'm still alive. I've carried this with me since I first got married. I'm so sorry for my mom and my dad, who never knew."

Even though she and her parents knew their missing loved one was most likely dead, not knowing was torturous. Now she can lay her brother to rest, she said.

Anderson said she is grateful to Davis and the forensic center holding her brother's body over the decades.

"I really appreciate what everyone's done in Tennessee," she said.

Anderson praises Davis for sticking with the case over the years, reviving it in 2018 so the connections from Davis to Ladd to Bradburn could be made to link her brother's disappearance in Georgia to the creekside scene in Tennessee.

Ladd had a good eye for detail to see the resemblance in the forensic sketch that went with the 2018 newspaper story, Anderson said.

"It was finally time for everything to happen," she said.

Her brother will come home soon.

"I'm going to have a memorial at sea," she said. No date has been, set but Anderson hopes everyone involved in the case can attend when the time comes.

Contact Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton.

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