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Skull fragment found above Nevada City linked to woman declared missing in 1973

Philip Desmet has only one clear memory of his birth mother.

He’s standing at a window, crying as he watches her leave. He even remembers the color of the pickup: red and white, with two stripes.

“I remember being at the window crying, because I wanted to go with her … She was waving and hopping into the truck,” he said.

That was the last time Philip — then known as Bobby — saw her.

It was Feb. 27, 1973. Joanne Dolly Burmer drove away with some friends, who dropped her off at Excelsior Point Road on Highway 20.

Burmer planned to snowshoe in to see her on-again, off-again boyfriend, Robert Brownlee, who some believed was Desmet’s father. Brownlee was staying in a trailer some three miles down the road, working for PG&E to keep its canals clear.

Nine days later, Burmer had not come back, so her friends finally made a call to the Nevada County Sheriff’s Office.

But despite the official investigation, and one made by a detective agency hired by Burmer’s mother, no trace of the missing 25-year-old was found.

A piece of evidence surfaces

Flash forward 20 years. Chuck Millar, armed with a permit and a U.S. Forest Service map, was scouting for a good place to harvest some wood. He turned onto Chalk Bluff Road and veered left down a dirt road that paralleled the highway. Then something caught his eye — what turned out to be the top of a skull, poking out of some banked-up dirt.

“I fished it out,” Millar said. “It looked quite old — it had chew marks from rodents.”

Millar put the skull fragment in his glove compartment and forgot about it for a while, then showed it to his wife, a nurse. She encouraged him to take it to the Sheriff’s Office.

“They thought it might have been from an old grave,” Millar said. “I didn’t think too much of it. I had long since forgotten about it.”

The skull cap did not yield its secrets, even after it was sent to the human identification laboratory at California State University, Chico’s anthropology department. An analysis suggested it belonged to that of a young or middle-aged white female, but that was before DNA testing was widely available. The fragment languished in storage.

Pieces of the puzzle: A timeline

Feb. 27, 1973: Friend Ron Inman drops Joanne Dolly Burmer off Highway 20 at Excelsior Point Road. She is last seen snowshoeing down the road to visit her boyfriend.

March 8, 1973: Inman and Burmer’s mother, Ruth Schroll, report her missing. Inman tells investigators Brownlee and Joanne had frequent fights, sometimes violent. Brownlee, however, denies fighting with Joanne, telling detectives they had a “very fine” relationship but admitting to having slapped her once. Brownlee says Joanne visited him Feb. 14 and left the next day. He drove to Colfax Feb. 24 to bring her snowshoes, and invited her to come out Feb. 27. That visit is confirmed by other witnesses. Detectives search Brownlee’s trailer and the surrounding area and find nothing.

May 1973: Brownlee passes a polygraph test.

June 1973: A more extensive search of the area shows no sign of Burmer, although some items possibly belonging to her are found nearby.

Sept. 1973: A private investigator hired by Schroll concludes Joanne has run off but is still alive. Schroll responds with a scathing letter in which she writes, “Never have I got so little for so much.” The missing persons case has grown cold.

May 30, 1993: Charles Millar finds a skull fragment off Chalk Bluff Road and turns it over to authorities. The skull cap is sent to Chico State but DNA testing is not yet a possibility and no link is made to Burmer’s disappearance.

2002: A cold case investigator collects DNA samples from several of Burmer’s relatives in an effort to identify human remains in a different case. No match is made but the DNA samples remain in the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System.

Aug. 2017: During a records review, the skull fragment is retrieved from Chico and sent to the California Department of Justice’s DNA laboratory to extract a DNA sample.

Aug. 2019: A DNA match is made between the skull fragment and Burmer.

A family mystery

Over the years, Desmet said, he has discovered things about his mother after relatives showed up — including a half-brother he didn’t know existed.

After Burmer disappeared, her son was placed in foster care. His grandmother, Ruth Schroll, wanted to adopt him but at the time was deemed too old. “Bobby” was adopted by a couple in Penryn and renamed “Philip.” His new family was open about the adoption and allowed him plenty of contact with Schroll and his uncles, he said.

But his grandmother rarely volunteered anything about Joanne, Desmet said.

“I would ask questions, but she just wanted me to move on,” he said. “I would get bits and pieces — that my mother loved me, that she was trying to do the best she could. … She had wanted to be a nurse. She played pool.”

Desmet had been told for years that his mother was dead.

“I asked my grandmother why I couldn’t remember her funeral,” he recalled. “She started crying.”

Desmet was finally told that Joanne had disappeared and that no one knew what happened to her.

“My mom was a hippie,” he said, adding that she had been living in a Quonset hut just outside Colfax, bouncing between there and Reno, and had worked for a while at a local bar. At some point, Joanne married a man named Robert Burmer, but then became involved in a tempestuous relationship with Brownlee.

“(Brownlee) was a womanizer, apparently,” Desmet said. “My understanding is, she was the other woman, and she was going up there to deliver an ultimatum (to him).”

It was not necessarily unusual for Joanne to go off and leave her son for a few days, he said.

“She had been known to come and go,” Desmet said, adding that apparently Joanne had been thinking about putting him up for adoption.

“I’m so lucky — I had two (adoptive) parents that put time into me,” Desmet said. “I had a good family, I was happy. … Things happen for a reason, plain and simple.”

Clues from the past

When Desmet was 22, his mother’s half-brother tracked him down, but did not have much to add to the mystery of what happened to Joanne. As he came to discover, Joanne was adopted and so was his grandmother, which made it nearly impossible to track down other relatives.

In 2001, Desmet was contacted by a retired cold-case investigator working for the Nevada County Sheriff’s Office, and gave a DNA sample to see if there was a match with a skull that had been found. DNA technology was becoming more widely used in solving missing person cases, but no match was found.

Spurred by that call, Desmet said, he started trying to dig more into the past. Before that, he noted, there was not really any easy way to search.

“The people who were involved were all gone,” he said, adding that Brownlee died in 1999.

Then, eight years ago, a half-brother of Desmet’s turned up, who had been given up for adoption when Joanne was 18.

Eric Erickson, who was born in Reno, might have been Burmer’s son, Desmet said. He had hired an investigator to track down possible relatives; the two men now keep in regular contact.

Mostly, Desmet said, he has taken in stride what few revelations have come.

At one point, poking around the internet, he found a mystery blog that featured Joanne’s story.

“One of the commenters asked, ‘What happened to her son?’” Desmet said. “That was weird for me.”

Making a connection

Linking the woman reported missing in 1973 to the skull fragment found in 1993 was both somewhat of a fluke, and a testament to some painstaking housecleaning by Nevada County Sheriff’s Lt. Bob Jakobs, then the head of the Major Crimes Unit.

In 2015, Jakobs had linked a woman missing from Nevada County with a traffic fatality in Texas.

“That invigorated me,” he said. “I started going through the (open missing persons and unidentified human remains) files.”

At the time, Jakobs explained, those files were not being used in any systematic way and were being pulled at random by patrol officers.

“I decided we needed to pull all the cases and centralize them,” he said.

Jakobs started compiling the information in a methodical fashion, adopting a Department of Justice spreadsheet and filling in the gaps — for example, getting dental records.

“It was quite an undertaking,” he recalled.

It wasn’t until March 2017 that Jakobs found the unidentified remains file.

“The Burmer missing persons case was never on my radar, because they had done everything they could do,” he said. “The unidentified remains hard file was in a drawer … When I started flipping through it, I realized it wasn’t on the list.”

Jakobs was able to determine the skull fragment had never been returned to the Sheriff’s Office Property Unit, entered into the state or national databases for unidentified remains or submitted for DNA testing.

“I called Chico and asked if they still had it — and they did,” he said.

The skull cap was then sent to the state Department of Justice’s DNA laboratory in Richmond to extract a viable DNA profile. Jakobs finally got his answer two years later — or at least a partial one.

The skull fragment belonged to Burmer. It showed no evidence of any trauma, Jakobs said — just weathering, staining and some chew marks. A researcher had determined it had not been buried, and was just resting top-up on the ground for some period of time.

Burmer’s missing persons case will remain open, because there has been only a partial recovery of her remains. That way, Jakobs explained, her DNA will remain active in the national database.

“There is not enough there to determine the cause of death,” Jakobs said, adding, “I would love to solve this. But unfortunately there’s not a lot for us to do at this point. … I might loop Search-and-Rescue in, in case they want to do some K-9 training (in the area where the skull was found). How successful they would be, I don’t know.”

Hoping for more

When Jakobs and Sgt. Mike Sullivan rang Desmet’s doorbell last month, he was not expecting to get any kind of closure on the enduring mystery of what happened to his mother.

“I always knew she had passed, after all this time,” he said.

“People ask me, how do I feel?” Desmet continued. “How am I supposed to feel? I don’t know. Relief — but a little bit of sadness, I guess. And a responsibility for the rest of the family, to bring closure to them.”

Desmet said he might continue to dig a little more, possibly to pursue DNA testing with Brownlee’s children.

“I wish there was more evidence, like a fracture on the skull that showed she fell,” he said. “I don’t know if there was foul play … It’s just hard to say.”

The answers to many of his questions, he said, went to people’s graves, and he’s learned to live with that.

“What I’m hoping for out of this is for someone who knew her to come forward,” Desmet said, musing, “This has all been one big puzzle.”

To contact Staff Writer Liz Kellar, email lizk@theunion.com or call 530-477-4236.

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