A credit card provided the first major clue.
Investigators obtained the American Express card from a villager in the Asian country of Laos in 2007. It belonged to Boise resident Kevin Hocevars father, James Monty Johnstone, who was killed in a plane crash there in 1966.
In 2009, searchers found the key piece of the puzzle: Johnstones left molar. Found at the site of the crash that took his life just a month after Hocevar was born, the tooth allowed the Department of Defense to identify Johnstones remains formally and give him a proper burial.
Hocevar, supervisory agent for the U.S. Probation Office in Boise, traveled to the East Coast earlier this month for the ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery. His mother traveled from Hayden Lake, his twin sister from Colorado.
His fathers old war buddies also attended, including a wingman who witnessed the crash. Some who attended had no connection to Johnstone other than a shared experience with the military.
Its not about me. Its much bigger than me, Hocevar, 46, said in an interview at his office at the federal courthouse in Downtown Boise, where hes worked since 2002. There were a lot of people working on this and thousands of man hours put into it before I went to Arlington.
FINDING MISSING AMERICANS
Johnstones identification and burial are part of a broad effort by the U.S. Department of Defense to find and identify the remains of all Americans missing in wars overseas.
About 83,000 are missing in action, including 1,655 during the Vietnam War, according to the Department of Defense; more than 120 people work full time to find and identify them. Johnstone is one of more than 600 identified and brought home.
Hocevar, a married father of two young children, has always known that his father died in the crash, so the official identification didnt confirm something he had doubts about. But for his fathers friends, the identification was monumental.
John Pfeiffer, the pilot flying alongside Johnstone at the time of the crash, spent his own money to travel to Laos in 2007 to make sure the government was at the right spot, he said.
He told me he has the last eight seconds framed of my dads life. He can see my dad hunched over the stick, just going straight down in a fireball, Hocevar said. Hes carried that for a long time.
Johnstone was a 28-year-old Army Reserve captain when he and co-pilot Maj. James L. Whited flew a OV-1A Mohawk aircraft over Attapu Province, Laos, on Nov. 19, 1966.
Hocevar and his twin sister had just been born.
Enemy activity prevented anyone from reaching the wreckage, according to the DOD, but both men likely died on impact. The official military report says the plane clipped a tree, but Pfeiffer believes it was shot down.
It was Pfeiffer who called Johnstones wife to break the terrible news.
She remarried a couple of years later and since has married again, becoming Jan OHalloran and Hocevar took his stepfathers last name. But he said his stepfather always encouraged him to maintain a relationship with his biological fathers family. Many of them attended the Dec. 12 burial ceremony in Arlington.
Though the ceremony was somber, Hocevar said, the trip was not a time for grief but a time for remembrance and celebration.
HOLDING OUT HOPE
Hocevar and his family had always hoped to bring Johnstone home. Hocevar, who served in the Marines and Air Force Reserve, said his grandmother always held out hope that he would walk through her door one day. She died about five years ago, before her sons official identification, but she knew military officials were working to find him.
A joint search team from the U.S. and Laos traveled to the area in January 1993 and retrieved evidence that allowed officials to tentatively identify the crash site, according to Department of Defense documents provided by Hocevar.
People living in the area told searchers in 2005 that it had been extensively scavenged for metal, but searchers still managed to find evidence there.
The big break came on Oct. 23 2007, when someone identified only as a defense intelligence agency source obtained that American Express card from a villager and gave it to officials. Crews excavated the Attapu Province site, finding more evidence but no human remains.
Searchers returned in May 2008 and in May 2009 and spent nearly a month further excavating the site. Both times, they found human teeth. Dental records confirmed that they belonged to Johnstone and Whited.
Searchers also found a piece of Johnstones military identification card.
A Department of Defense representative traveled to Boise last summer to review the findings with Hocevar. The department paid for Hocevar, his sister and his mother to attend the burial at Arlington.
Hocevar returned with the shell casings from the three-gun salute. He keeps photos of the burial ceremony at his Boise office.
Im proud, Hocevar said. Its a good thing to have him back on U.S. soil.
Meghann M. Cuniff: 377-6418