By Archie Ingersoll
October 7, 2012
FORT WAYNE – In 1973, Joe Lyon was a 5-year-old kid oblivious to his future calling as a police officer.
The same year, a woman named Genevieve Miller filed a theft report with the Fort Wayne Police Department after someone stole her husband Vernon's shotgun, a 12-gauge Winchester with a trap-shooting barrel.
The gun's whereabouts remained a mystery until September, when the shotgun surfaced at a pawnshop in Fredericksburg, Va. A service that tracks pawnshop sales, LeadsOnline.com, matched the gun's serial number and sent an email to Lyon, now 44 and a Fort Wayne detective who investigates cases involving stolen goods that have been pawned.
With the statute of limitations expired, Lyon would not be making an arrest in this case. Still, it was his job to find the gun's owner.
"It just really intrigued me that this record was sitting in NCIC for so long waiting to be found," he said, referring to the National Crime Information Center, a database that, among other things, catalogs stolen guns.
"I knew I was looking at an uphill battle with this one, just based on how long ago the original incident happened."
He also knew this shotgun, had it not been stolen, might have been passed down from one generation to the next – to Vernon Miller's children and then grandchildren.
"That kind of touched me a little bit," Lyon said.
So he set out to find Genevieve Miller, the woman who reported the gun stolen. He learned she had lived in the 600 block of Florence Avenue, and he came across a newspaper obituary for her husband, a welder at a local steel mill, who died in 1975 in Fort Wayne.
Lyon did not find an obituary for Genevieve Miller, but he suspects that she has also died.
In search of the couple's relatives, Lyon called on the Allen County Library's Genealogy Center for help.
Drawing from U.S. census records, he was able to create a family tree for the Millers on Ancestry.com, something, he said, he'd never done before as part of a police investigation.
Using this information, he tried to reach the Millers' children. With a lead on two daughters possibly living in Florida, he called multiple women in the state with the same names as the daughters but had no luck finding a rightful heir to the gun.
"At this point, the only family I'd be able to get it back to would be a grandchild," he said.
So far, that grandchild also has been elusive, and the case has come to a dead end.
That's why Lyon is asking for the public's help in finding a relative of Genevieve and Vernon Miller.
How the shotgun got from Fort Wayne to Spotsylvania Gold & Pawn in Fredericksburg, Va., is not clear.
Lyon said the man who recently pawned the gun had inherited it from his grandfather, a gun collector who regularly scoured newspaper classifieds looking for firearms to buy. Where the grandfather got the gun, Lyon doesn't know.
"It's in remarkably good shape," Lyon said of the shotgun that was made in the late 1960s or early 1970s. "It was cared for by somebody who appreciated it."
For now, the gun remains at Spotsylvania Gold & Pawn. A police hold has been placed on it, so it's not for sale. But if Lyon cannot find one of the Millers' relatives, the police hold will be lifted and the pawnshop will be able to sell the gun, he said.
A 17-year veteran of the police department, Lyon has worked the pawn detail full time for about 18 months, handling thefts of jewelry, electronics, tools, music equipment and whatever else can be sold for quick cash.
His investigations typically start with a stolen item that's ended up on the shelf of a pawnshop. From there, he works to build a case against the thief and in some cases the "cutout," an accomplice who pawned the property, he said.
When Lyon can, he tries to reunite people with their belongings. Doing this, he said, brings him satisfaction.
"Eight times out of 10, the first response is, 'Oh my God, I can't believe you found it,' and they're extremely happy," he said.
If Lyon finds the owner of the shotgun in this case, it's hard to say who'll be happier.
"It's going to be the successful conclusion of the puzzle," he said.