DNA tests conclusively show that human remains unearthed by amateur diggers in March during a search for the grave of Sean Flynn are not those of the missing war photographer, who disappeared covering the Cambodian conflict in 1970, a US military officer said yesterday.
Instead, remains found in the much-criticized excavation appear to belong to a Cambodian or someone from the region. It was unclear yesterday where these remains might now be sent or whether testing will continue.
“The remains from the dig we did in Cambodia earlier this year are not Sean Flynn-they appear to be indigenous,” wrote US Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Wayne Perry, public affairs director of the Hawaii-based Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, in an e-mail yesterday. JPAC is the US agency tasked with finding Americans who went missing during past conflicts.
Lt Col Perry added that JPAC tested bone fragments from both March’s amateur excavation and JPAC’s re-excavation of the site in April.
“DNA extracted from the recovered remains was sampled against the DNA we had on file from the Flynn family and there was no match,” he wrote.
Lt Col Perry did not immediately reply to a query on the future of the remains. John Johnson, spokesman for the US Embassy in Phnom Penh, referred all questions to JPAC.
Mr Flynn disappeared with colleague Dana Stone 40 years ago on April 6 after the pair were captured by Vietnamese troops in Svay Rieng province and handed over to the Khmer Rouge.
Self-styled adventurers Dave MacMillan and Keith Rotheram claimed in March to have found what may be the remains of the photojournalist, who is the son of Hollywood icon Errol Flynn, after a Kompong Cham province excavation. The pair turned over a piece of jawbone, teeth and bone fragments to the US government that month.
Subsequent newspaper headlines stated that Mr Flynn’s remains had been found, including in UK newspaper the Daily Telegraph, where a headline on March 30 ran: “Remains of Errol Flynn’s son, Sean, ‘discovered’ in Cambodia.”
March’s amateur dig was strongly criticized by former colleagues of Mr Flynn as irresponsible and self-serving, though the two men had the support of Mr Flynn’s half sister, Rory Flynn.
JPAC Forensic Anthropologist Hugh Tuller said the “disturbed” state of the site “could definitely affect identification” when he and a team from the US agency returned to re-excavate in April.
Mr Rotheram, one of the excavators, said yesterday that the news of JPAC’s DNA test results was “disappointing,” but cautioned that he and his partner never said for certain that the remains were those of Mr Flynn.
“We never, ever claimed it was Sean Flynn, but we were 100 percent sure that we had a Westerner because of the quality of the dental work,” he said.
That claim is somewhat at odds with statements made soon after the dig, when the duo said they had evidence, including the testimony of a witness, strongly connecting the remains to Mr Flynn.
Mr Rotheram, a Briton who considers himself an Errol Flynn look-alike and who runs a bar called Flynn’s in one of his two Preah Sihanouk City guesthouses, said he is not planning to do any more digs.
He also said he is “happy because I’ve gotten someone home to their families.”
When it was pointed out to him that the bones are likely those of a Southeast Asian, and that they are now in Hawaii, he said the future of the remains is in JPAC’s hands.
He said “no comment” and hung up when asked to respond to criticism of the dig.
Mr MacMillan, the Australian partner of Mr Rotheram, could not be reached for comment yesterday. In the past he has said he was planning to excavate more grave sites in Cambodia in search of other missing journalists.
Tim Page, a colleague of Mr Flynn’s, reiterated his criticism of the dig yesterday. He said identification of the remains that were unearthed is unlikely.
“It would be nice to find out who was dug up, but I don’t think there’s going to be much to go on because they put a backhoe through their skull,” he said, referring to the use of a mechanical excavator.
Mr Page said he will continue his own search for Mr Flynn’s grave, and will give any information to JPAC.
“Nobody’s allowed to go out and do private digs in this country,” he said.
Information Minister Khieu Kanharith has said in the past that excavations for human remains need to be done in cooperation with the Interior Minister.
Asked about the dig, Lieutenant General Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Interior Ministry, referred questions to the POW/MIA Committee. Members of that committee could not be reached for comment.
Choek Sa, governor of Kompong Cham province’s Memot district, said in the past that the amateur diggers had the permission of local authorities.