Recollections of AO
How “AO” history knowledge and contacts helped ID a body
in a ‘Cold Case’ Murder investigation in Feb 2008-

by Dick Whitney

This February (2008) I opened my inbox in my home email to find a most unusual AO History request. Since I have become an authority on American Optical’s history, people and products, I am accustomed to getting several inquiries a week asking for AO Product or historical information. Little did I realize that the email I was opening his time was about to lead me to assist in a ‘cold case’ murder investigation!
Here is an excerpt from that initial email:
“Mr. Whitney,

I am a Coroner’s Investigator with the state of California.  I was given your name by the folks over at American Optical sunglasses and told you were a historian on the American Optical company.

My office is investigating the finding of skeletal remains in a shallow grave.  In the grave were a pair of American Optical eyeglass frames with one bifocal lens present.  I’d like to e-mail you a photo of the frames in hopes that you might be able to come up with a time frame of when they were manufactured…”

Naturally, my curiosity led me to quickly respond and volunteer to help and do what I could to assist in this investigation. I called the Coroner and we discussed the case. I then received numerous photos via email, a few of which are shown here.

The photos showed an old AO Frame of a familiar style. It was obvious that they had been in the ground for some time, given the deteriorated condition that they were in. I was told by the coroner that they believed the body (which did not have a skull with it) had been in the shallow grave for a long time. One reason that they believed it to be old, aside from its condition, is that in the grave beside the body was an old screw top aspirin bottle, thus dating it prior to the “child proof” caps. This meant it likely to be at least 30 years old.

Following up on the frame and lens details, I asked for more specifics about the A & B dimensions and segment width on the one remaining glass lens. I also asked for a measured prescription if possible.
From the photo of the glass lens, it appeared like the lens had an AR coating on it, but realizing that the gravesite was likely very old, I decided that this was probably just a film or attack of the material from the many years it had been in the ground. While I can recall being involved in testing AO AR lenses in the 1970’s, I doubted this would be one of them!

My thoughts of cleverly identifying the body from his/her prescription soon faded, as I realized that prescription records would be impossible to find. I the decided I had been watching too many Forensic Files on TV.  Thinking that finding useful information to the Coroner would be unlikely, I decided to see what more could be uncovered than they already knew.

One of my first inquires involved finding out more about the manufacture of the Frame. Fortunately, one of our family’s longest and closest friends had been the Plant Manager of American Optical’s Frame plant in Frederick Maryland during the time the frame likely would have been made. Our friends name is Bob Haynes, and he and his family have been friends since my father first meet him while both worked in AO’s R&D department in 1947. I gave Bob a call in Florida where he retired to, and described the situation. I followed up by emailing him the photos I had just received from the Murder investigation.

Bobs email back stated:
“A cursory look at the photos from the coroner and an AO Frame catalog makes me believe this is the Stadium frame. I don't have the manufacturing dates yet, but the catalog the picture is from was printed  in 1966 based on the date stamp. I am forwarding the pictures to Howard Strine, who was our QC Manager, and who I occasionally hear from. He may have other and better ideas about it.

With this information I contacted the Coroner, but Bob continued his search thru his records. A few days later I got a follow up email, where a second Women’s frame had been identified. It was called the Clic frame and Bob emailed me the information from the catalogue he had uncovered. He had found both Marketing information and purchase price, “IBM Catalogue” AO Chart numbers for this product line!

When reading the Marketing blurb on the Clic frame, I laughed as I read that the Clic was a “breathtaking beauty for the moonbeam-minded”. Say what? They certainly had fun with avoiding a more fitting description of the Frame!

Armed with this new info along with scans of the Catalogue that Bob had provided, I told the Coroner that it could be the ‘Clic’ Womens’ frame. His response was:
“This makes more sense, as we found some female clothes in the grave - no skull or teeth.  Any time frame on when these were in production for the Clic? Incredible work!”
Bob Haynes researched further and discovered that frame had been sold by AO from ~1964 until 1983 when the Frederick Frame plant closed its operations.

Not long after providing this manufacturing information to the Marin County Coroner, I received this exciting email from him:

“Mr. Whitney,

WE have an ID in this case… our ‘Jane Doe’ went missing in May of 1964 - matching the time line you've been able to provide.

Thanks so much for your all your help!”

Return to AO Recollections Page

Return to AO History Main Page

Southbridge Recollections

Dick Whitney Recollections