Search for Renton ‘Highlands Man,’ Woman may lead to closed grocery store

The leads investigators are following to identify Highlands Man and, now, Highlands Woman, may take them to Johnson’s Grocery, which closed in north Renton more than three decades ago.

Archaeologist Jason Cooper sifts through rock and dirt in early May

The leads investigators are following to identify Highlands Man and, now, Highlands Woman, may take them to Johnson’s Grocery, which closed in north Renton more than three decades ago.

It’s possible that the owner of the grocery store – Louis Johnson – also owned the house that originally stood on the property on Edmonds Avenue Northeast where the remains were found last month.

But this is a historical mystery, so this clue and any other may lead nowhere.

Still, the investigators, led by famed forensic anthropologist Dr. James Chatters, want to hear from descendants of Louis and Augusta Johnson about who may have lived in the house – and perhaps buried family members in the yard.

It’s unclear whether the Johnson family actually lived in the house, although a man named Louis Johnson owned the house from 1931 to the early 1940s, according to property records reviewed by Chatters’ team.

The house was built in 1919.

Such possibilities are all in the day’s work for Jason Cooper,

an archaeologist who is working with Chatters on the detailed snooping through records and on interviews with anyone familiar with that part of the Highlands, just north of modern-day McKnight Middle School.

“We get to play history detectives every day,” Cooper said.

But, as he said, sometimes what they are looking for is a “needle in the haystack.”

For sure, the investigators know that a young slight man in his teens or maybe early 20s and a middle-aged woman or slightly older were buried side-by-side in the same grave sometime in the late 1910s or very early 1920s.

One coffin was ornate – probably the woman’s – and one was plain. Investigators have recovered all of the coffin hardware and are trying to make contact with a funeral director in Puyallup who is an expert in dating such coffin hardware.

And they now have all the remains that were recovered, including those that were collected by a team led by Kathy Taylor, a forensic anthropologist employed by the King County Medical Examiner’s Office, that did an initial investigation at the site in mid-May. They, along with Renton police, determined that the young man was not the victim of a modern crime.

The remains of the woman were discovered later by Chatters’ team.

From the evidence, investigators can’t determine whether the man and woman were buried at the same time, or when they died. One possibility is that they died in an influenza outbreak in 1917 in King County.

Further analysis by Chatters could yield more clues. So far, the bones didn’t indicate any “pathologies” that could have led to the deaths, Cooper said. There also were no signs due to wear on bones that the young teen had worked in the coal mines.

The goal has always been to recover all the remains, identify them and finally give them a proper reburial. The remains were found on property now owned by Renton builder Jim Jacques, who uncovered a human bone while digging a utility trench with a backhoe in early May.

He is paying for the investigation to identify the remains and would likely pay for the reburial as well. Jacques estimates he could spend up to $15,000, including the reburial.

One option is to rebury the remains at the site, according to Cooper.

But Jacques said that option would not benefit him as he markets the new houses. He would prefer to rebury the remains elsewhere.

He’s working with the state on the reburial options, including whether he might get help from the state to pay for the reburial costs. New state laws affecting such situations go into effect on July 1, he said.

The investigators, employed by AMEC Earth and Environmental Services in Kirkland, will monitor the site in a month or so when Jacques excavates the the third lot he owns, just in case additional remains are found.

The practice of burying people on private property was outlawed in King County in the early 1940s. Finding such a gravesite in what is now a suburban area is rare.

Cooper said the investigators have received several leads from residents familiar with that part of the Highlands. He has received help from a pioneer association in Seattle, which has documented early pioneers.

“There are lots of interested folks out there trying to provide as much information as possible,” he said.

And, some of those folks might well live in Renton, especially descendants of the Johnsons and their sons, Roger and Donald.

The patriarch – Louis Johnson – started to build Johnson’s Grocery in 1912 and moved in with his new bride, Augusta, in September 1912. They lived above the store all of their lives and Roger and Donald were born in the house.

The Johnson family history was reported in an Aug. 13, 1972, article in the Renton Chronicle when the store, then operated by Roger, closed. The building, on Factory Avenue North, remains, but it’s now an apartment.

So far, Cooper has not spoken with any descendants of Louis and Augusta Johnson, who might be able to shed some light on the residents in the house. It’s possible that the Johnsons rented the house to tenants.

“I am hoping we can focus a little more on the Johnsons,” he said.

Dean A. Radford can be reached at 425-255-3484, ext. 5050, or at

Know anything?

Anyone with relevant information about the history of the property at the 2200 block of Edmonds Avenue Northeast from the first half of the 1900s can call archaeologist Jason Cooper with AMEC Earth and Environmental Services in Kirkland. The phone number is 425-820-4669

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