‘It’s just a sad, sad story’: Brother of 15-year-old hitchhiker found 60 years after death discusses painful childhood

Local News

A photo composite of Danny Armantrout. (Courtesy of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children)

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — Any place was better than home for Donald Hamilton and his brothers.

In 1958, Hamilton and his two brothers, David and Danny Armantrout, moved with their mother and stepfather to Paris, Tennessee, the town Hamilton said he and his brothers dreamed of one day leaving to escape the horrific abuse they endured.

“It’s just a sad, sad story,” he said. “In today’s world, both my parents would be in jail.”

Hamilton, a retired Army sergeant major who now lives in Seminole, Florida, recounted how his stepfather, a day laborer who he said was often unemployed, would often beat him and his brothers with a belt until it snapped.

Donald Hamilton

“He used to say, ‘I’m going to beat you until you cry,’” he said. “When I was 15, he beat me so bad, I didn’t cry and said, ‘That’s the last time you’ll beat me.’”

Their mother also took part in the abuse, often starving them for whole weekends as punishment.

“If she thought we told a lie, she would burn our fingers with matches,” he said.

Hamilton said he and his brothers thought the Army was the best way to get out, but David’s poor eyesight and Danny’s limp due to polio nixed that option for the two. But they found other ways to get out, and within a year, all three boys were gone.

David was the first to escape when he left in 1960 at the age of 19. Later that year, the 17-year-old Donald dropped out of school and joined the Army. The only remaining brother was Danny, and in January 1961, the 15-year-old ran away.

“If David and Daniel had not left, it would’ve been worse,” he said. “When David and I were gone, Danny had all the chores and he couldn’t handle it himself.”

By March 1961, Danny had managed to hitchhike all the way to Centreville, Alabama, where he tragically died after the car he was riding in went off a bridge and into the Cahaba River. Danny had not given his name to the surviving driver and had no identification on him, so at the time, no one knew who he was.

A composite photo of Danny Armantrout (Courtesy of the Center for Missing & Exploited Children)

For 60 years, no one knew that Danny was the passenger in that car. His own tombstone in Bibb County read “Unknown in Life but Recognized in Death.” That all changed when Identifinders International, a company based on solving cold cases, exhumed his remains and positively identified him through DNA testing.

“It was an overwhelming experience, and I am very grateful of our technology,” Bibb County Coroner C.W. West said. “You hear people all the time gripe about technology, but in this case, I am so thankful we have the technology today to be able to solve this case.”

Outside of briefly seeing David in 1962, Donald never saw his brothers again, and despite his efforts to locate the pair, he knew that any place was better than home for them.

“For David, being homeless on the streets was better than going back there,” he said.

While Hamilton explained he had felt David was alright, he was always concerned about Danny.

“With Danny, I was always worried,” he said. “If you pushed him hard, he would fall. I had thought years ago he had perished.”

Grave of Danny Armantrout in Centreville, Alabama.

But last weekend, Hamilton got a call from Misty Gillis from Identifinders about a missing person in his family. He didn’t even think about his brothers and hung up the phone, believing it was a prank call. Eventually, Gillis texted Hamilton’s wife about Danny, and Donald is grateful that he finally has answers about one brother.

“I’m very happy that we can have closure and his soul is going to be rededicated,” he said.

Now, work is being done to find David. According to Gillis, public records indicate his whereabouts were last known in 1963, when he was arrested and charged with vagrancy in Dade County, Florida.

“I have probably worked hundreds of cold cases, and this is the first experience I’ve had where we had two people missing in one family,” said Colleen Fitzpatrick, president of Identifinders.

Hamilton and his family plan to come down to Centreville Dec. 28 for a memorial service for Danny. As for his other sibling, Hamilton is holding out hope that David, who would be 80 years old today, is still out there.

“I think he was strong enough to survive,” he said. “If he’s alive, he has a place in my house to stay.”

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