On Monday, March 27, 1961, a teenage hitchhiker was picked up in Centreville, Alabama. The driver who picked this young man up probably thought he was helping him out, but this event soon took a turn for the worse. Let’s talk about the boy who, up until recently, was only known as the Bibb County John Doe.
In the early evening hours of March 27, 36-year-old Cottondale resident James White picked up a teenage boy hitchhiker. The boy told James that he wanted to get to Tuscaloosa, but that his ultimate goal was to join the military. The boy said he needed to be at Ford Ord, all the way in California, in just three days.
But he would never make it there. Not too long after picking this boy up, James White lost control of his car going over the River Bend Bridge and crashed into a guardrail. The car fell 250 feet into the Cahaba River below.
James was able to get out of the car and swim to shore. His passenger was not. James was taken to a hospital, where he informed staff that the wreck had had a fatality. Divers retrieved the boy’s body around 9:00 that night, still in the front seat.
The boy had no identification on him, but was estimated to be between 14 and 15 years old, approximately 5 feet 6 inches tall and 113 to 120 pounds, with light brown hair and blue eyes. (Later estimates would place his age as young as 13 and as old as 17.) An autopsy determined he’d broken his neck and hand in the wreck. His cause of death has been listed by some sources as drowning, others as a broken neck. It was also discovered in the autopsy that he may have walked with a limp.
Although he was carrying no identification or wallet, the boy did have a few other items with him: Pall Mall cigarettes from South Carolina, a backpack with heavy winter clothes inside and a photo of himself with a young girl. Someone had written on the back of the photo: “Think of me always and remember how we used to go places together.” He was also wearing an immaculate conception medal and a Timex wrist watch.
As it turned out, the boy had also been picked up by a couple of other drivers earlier in the day. After coming forward, one of these drivers told investigators the boy claimed to be hitchhiking from the Carolinas to San Diego and that he wanted to join the military. He told another driver that his parents had just divorced and he wanted to join the Navy because his only other option would have been living in an orphanage. Other reports say he was trying to find work in Alabama but had been unsuccessful.
Not too long into the investigation, a woman in Huntsville named Mary McNeese thought the boy might be her 17-year-old son, James Byles. James had been working in Pensacola, but had called his mom the Saturday before John Doe died and told her he was going to hitchhike to Savannah, Georgia to look for work. McNeese thought the resemblance between John Doe and her son was uncanny, and he fit the description. She sent pictures of James to a sheriff in Alabama, but he said it was a different boy because they had different colored eyes.
After being recovered, John Doe’s body was displayed in a local funeral home in the hopes that someone could identify him. Coroner Jack Lee, who also owned the funeral home, was contacted by several families across Alabama who thought John Doe might be someone they knew. But these all lead to dead ends.
There were a couple of people who viewed John Doe’s body who received more attention than others. One man had a heart attack when he saw the body; there was speculation that the boy was his son, but this never led anywhere. An older woman came to view the body two days in a row, staying an unusually long time. But nobody ever got any additional information from her.
John Doe’s body would be displayed at the funeral home for two weeks before being buried in Centreville Cemetery. A sketch of him would be circulated in newspapers and police would investigate over 300 tips. But for over six more decades, his identity would remain a mystery.
Over the years, there has been a lot of speculation about the Bibb County John Doe. Let’s go over just a few of the things people have theorized.
First off, people wondered about his age, specifically if he was even old enough to join the military. One person on Websleuths wondered if he’d run away from the Dozier School in Florida. I talked briefly about the Dozier School in my video on Paul John Knowles; from the little I did find on it, it wasn’t a place you would want to be.
Others wondered where he was from, and speculated he was from further north than he’d claimed. Remember, the backpack he was carrying had heavy winter clothes inside. March in Alabama is sometimes cooler, but it’s not usually cold enough for those kinds of clothes.
There was also speculation about exactly who the boy was. Some people thought he was a civil rights activist, since there were a lot traveling to the area at the time. Others also wondered if he was Catholic because of the immaculate conception medal.
A lot of speculation centered on the boy’s seemingly homemade tattoo. People wondered not only whose initials were carved into his arm, but whether he’d done it himself or had gotten a friend or relative to do it. Most people seem to think the initials were those of him and the girl in the photograph, the latter of whom has never been identified.
In 2016, John Doe’s body was exhumed for DNA, but no match was found at the time. The case was reopened in 2021, by which time there were several new DNA techniques that hadn’t been available even a few years earlier. True crime YouTube Gray Hughes funded the new investigation into John Doe’s identify, and the case was taken over by Identifiers International. DNA was extracted from John Doe’s teeth and entered into genealogy databases.
John Doe’s DNA eventually lead the new investigators to a few of his cousins. One of them told them about his cousin Danny, who had run away from home years earlier. Danny also walked with a limp due to having polio as a child. Remember, the Bibb County John Doe was thought to have possibly walked with a limp.
In October 2021, a worker from Identifiers International contacted a man named Donald Hamilton, the brother of John Doe, inquiring about a missing person in the family. At first, Donald thought it was a prank call, but when the same worker called his wife, he realized what was going on. Donald did have two missing brothers, David and Danny. All three boys had left home at a young age, and hadn’t been in contact much since then.
Researchers at Identifiers International sent Donald post mortem photos of John Doe, who had still been recognizable just after he died. Donald identified the boy as his brother Danny. In a news conference broadcast via Zoom on October 30, 2021, it was officially announced that the Bibb County John Doe had been identified as Danny Armantrout.
who was Danny Armantrout?
Daniel Paul Armantrout was born on December 28, 1945 in Miami, Florida to mom Ginny and dad Alfred. He was also welcomed by his two older brothers, Donald and David.
Danny’s parents eventually divorced, and his mom remarried a man named Jim. In 1958, Danny, his brothers, his mom and stepdad all moved to Paris, Tennessee.
As had been earlier speculated, Danny’s family was Catholic. Despite this, the early lives of Danny and his brothers were far from ideal. They claimed their stepdad beat them with a belt and their mom would starve them for several weeks at a time and burn their fingers with matches. David was the first to leave home in 1960 at the age of 19. Later that year, Donald also left and joined the Army. In January of 1961, a now 15-year-old Danny left as well. Despite what he’d told the drivers who would pick him up a couple of months later, he wouldn’t have been able to join the military due to his limp.
Donald and David saw each other briefly in 1962, but haven’t spoken since. Donald would occasionally try to find his brothers over the years, but ultimately decided they were better off whatever they were, rather than at home. However, he would later admit he’d always had a bad feeling about what happened to Danny.
As of January 2022, David’s whereabouts are unknown. The last place he was known to be was Florida, where he was arrested for vagrancy in 1963. There are also no publicly available photos of Danny other than his postmortem photo, which you can view via this FBI bulletin. (scroll to page 17)
Identifying Danny Armantrout took 60 years to do. It’s the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s oldest case solved by genetic genealogy.