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Washington John Doe Murder Victim ID’d As Georgia Man Who Disappeared 41 Years Ago
Authorities say Robert Helberg, suspected of killing U.S. Marine Ronald Chambers after he disappeared from a SeaTac motel, is also a person of interest in other homicides.
A 41-year-old cold case in Washington state has finally been solved after authorities identified a John Doe as a missing man from Georgia.
On Aug. 3, 1980, the skeletal remains of an unknown man were discovered by a landowner in north Snohomish County, according to the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office. Authorities found the man’s skull, which showed evidence of a gunshot wound. County officials found more remains the following day, though additional searches yielded no identifying articles nearby. The victim’s death was ruled a homicide.
After nine attempts to run his DNA through four different labs, investigators announced Friday they finally identified the John Doe as Ronald David Chambers, 28, of Rome, Georgia.
Mary Chambers, who reported her husband missing, made a statement to officials upon the news.
“It’s been a long time,” said Mary Chambers. “He was 28, now he would be 71. I’m really happy to have this moment and bring him home. Thank you very much to everyone for your persistence and dedication to seeing this through.”
Chambers was last seen by his wife on Dec. 17, 1978, according to Snohomish officials. She reported him missing in the new year, claiming Chambers left their SeaTac motel in a rental car and was never seen again. His sudden disappearance drew speculation from the get-go.
“The suspect, Robert 'Bob' Helberg, returned to the motel later that day, driving the victim’s rental car,” stated officials. “While foul play was suspected at the time and the suspect was identified, without a body, it could not be proved.”
Authorities named Helberg as a “suspect” in Chambers’ murder, adding he was a “person of interest in additional homicide cases” as well.
Just before Chambers vanished, he and Mary — with their infant son — stayed at the motel to help his friend, Helberg, move from Arizona. When Helberg returned without Chambers, he told Mary he believed Chambers was killed by a hitman, according to The Everett Herald.
“He knew Chambers was dead at that point and nobody else did,” said Snohomish Det. Jim Scharf. “It took us 41 years to be able to figure it out.”
Authorities said Helberg, who was 42 when Chambers disappeared, had drug connections that were “maybe at a higher level than street level,” said Scharf. They said Helberg was a “self-proclaimed hitman.”
The Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office told Oxygen.com that detectives were not releasing additional information on the cases for which Helberg might be connected. According to the Herald, Helberg died in a federal prison in California on March 29, 1993.
In 1981, Chambers’ remains were buried at Arlington Municipal Cemetery, once a common practice before it was decided that remains would be kept with the county medical examiner until formal identification, according to the sheriff’s office. Since then, numerous attempts to identify the John Doe had been fruitless.
“In the years that followed, the case grew cold and, due to a far less extensive record-keeping in the early 1980s, it is unclear that extent of work that investigators may have done, including how many known missing persons the remains may have been compared to.”
In 2008, the case was reopened and entered into NamUS and the federal National Crime Information Center for comparison, but no results were found. In 2011, investigators obtained a search warrant and had the body exhumed. Authorities failed to extract usable DNA from the victim, even when sending teeth to analysts. John Doe remained at the medical examiner’s office, where he stayed until 2021 when authorities had Othram Inc. obtain usable DNA and provide a match using genetic genealogy.
“On Dec. 29, 2021, the relationship was confirmed by Family Tree DNA, and the remains were officially identified as Ronald David Chambers,” stated the sheriff’s office. “In February 2022, dental charting obtained from Ronald’s military records also confirmed the identity.”
Chambers was a U.S. Marine who served in Vietnam in 1968 and remained in the reserves until 1975, though he was inactive, according to the Herald. Born in Rome, Georgia, he was the son of Riblee Jacobs and Samuel Chambers, who served in World War II and the Korean War.
“I watched my mother grieve for 25 years for her son, wondering where he was and what happened to him,” Chambers’ sister said in a statement. “At 12 years old, I lost one of the most important people of my life, my big brother. And today, thanks to the determination and hard work of so many men and women that worked my brother’s case, we are able to bring him home after so many years. I am thankful for and amazed by the hard work they put into this case over the years.”
Chambers’ sister, who was only identified as Judy in the statement, named Det. Scharf as being instrumental in bringing their family closure.
Authorities are reaching out to the public for anyone with information about Robert Helberg and his activities between 1978 and 1985. Those people can contact the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office tip line at 425-388-3845.