Sewanee Sleuth Helps Identify Man Missing 37 Years

by Leslie Lytle, Messenger Staff Writer

Thirty-seven years ago, a parallel sequence of events occurred that left the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation searching for the identity of a man whose partially decomposed body was discovered in Battle Creek and left a family searching for a loved one last heard from when they made Thanksgiving plans. Thanks to the diligence, intuitiveness, and creative sleuthing of Sewanee resident Barbara King Ladd, the searches of both the TBI and family recently came to an end. Through wheels Ladd set in motion, DNA evidence identified the John Doe found in Battle Creek as Donald Boardman from Chamblee, Ga., missing since November 1985.

On January 29, 2018, the Chattanooga Times ran a story at the urging of TBI investigator Larry Davis who hoped readers might offer information about a 1985 Marion County case that had haunted him for over 30 years, the probable murder of a man with fatal fractures to the base of his skull and fractured rib and vertebra. The autopsy indicated the man had been dead about a month when a fisherman discovered the body in Battle Creek, badly decomposed due to unseasonably warm weather. There were no identifying papers or records on his person, although his dress suggested expensive tastes. Davis speculated the case might be linked to two other homicides occurring in the same region of southeast Tennessee.

Ladd, a stay-at-home mom in 2018, read the Chattanooga Times story and as soon as she had the children bedded down, she started searching the internet. “It piqued my curiosity,” Ladd said. “Battle Creek is just 20-30 minutes from Sewanee.” Ladd had recently learned about the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs). She started her search there, on a hunch, focusing on Georgia. “I’m highly intuitive,” she confessed. That same night she zeroed in on Boardman as the unidentified Marion County John Doe. Another internet source, the Atlanta-Journal Constitution (“Man believed foul play victim,” Dec. 13, 1985), revealed Boardman last spoke with his parents in Florida on November 16, and on November 29, law enforcement located Boardman’s new Camaro and credit card in the possession of a body shop owner, his girlfriend, and a male companion. Ladd contacted Larry Davis. “He thought [Boardman] looked like a good match,” Ladd said.

But then things stalled. Ladd speculated the possible murder was being investigated. In 2021, though, through her new job as a Life Skills teacher for the Campora Family Resouce Center, Ladd had business at the district attorney’s office. Her interest in Boardman renewed, Ladd attempted to reach Davis, and failing at that, she contacted the Chamblee Police Department via Facebook. Her message landed on the desk of Administrative Assistant Lori Bradburn. “Lori got the message, and she ran with it,” Ladd said. “I was intrigued,” Bradburn said. “I love true crime podcasts.” Ladd contacted Davis, located Boardman’s sister in Florida, retreived a scan of the 40-page police report, and a copy of the 1987 civil suit filed by Boardman’s parents against the individuals found with his car.

The police report said the individuals possessing Boardman’s car were stopped on suspicion of intoxication. The body shop owner claimed he had the car for repairs. A license plate search showed the car as “wanted.” All three had criminal records. The woman was wanted for armed robbery and in possession of a “white powder.” The officers impounded the car and took the woman into custody. The civil suit ruling found the defendants financially liable for “assuming dominion and control over Donald Boardman’s property.” The ruling did not address the allegation “Assuming arguendo…Boardman is deceased…the defendants caused his death.”

Two DNA matches to Boardman’s sister confirmed his identity. According to Bradburn, the men found with Boardman’s car are deceased. In conversation with Davis, Bradburn said Davis questioned who had jurisdiction to bring charges against the woman since it was not known where the murder occurred. Davis speculated Battle Creek was just a “dump site.”

Modest about her role in the identification of Boardman, Ladd said, “God was just lining up everybody needed to bring closure to this case…It took all of us working together for this case to be solved.”

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