Mill Creek skull identified through rare, ‘cold’ dental match

Jonathan Crawford-Nelson had been missing since 2016.

A skull found in August in Mill Creek was identified as that of Jonathan Crawford-Nelson. He had been missing since 2016.

A skull found in August in Mill Creek was identified as that of Jonathan Crawford-Nelson. He had been missing since 2016.

MILL CREEK — The skull’s teeth revealed the man’s name.

He was Jonathan Christian Crawford-Nelson, an Everett resident born in 1990. Today he would have been 28.

How and when he died is a mystery. His identity was found through dental records, a rare “cold hit” in a missing person case, where a link is made between X-rays of teeth.

A man brought the skull to police in August, saying he’d found the remains in the woods along North Creek, near the Mill Creek Town Center. Police believed it had gone undiscovered for a long time, perhaps years. An animal could have carried it to the woods.

The man who found the skull appeared to be high on drugs, but he cooperated with police.

For about two weeks, the Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office classified the skull as unidentified human remains.

“How quickly we were able to get the records compared, that’s unusual,” said Carri Gordon, manager of the missing persons unit at the Washington State Patrol. “Sometimes we’re backlogged by a couple of months.”

If a missing person isn’t found for more than 30 days in Washington, the authorities are required by state law to try to obtain dental records. Those records go to the National Crime Information Center, or NCIC.

Because of that law, Washington is one of the best states in the country for having X-rays on file in missing person cases, said Dr. Gary Bell, a dentist and specialist in forensic odontology who works with the state patrol.

Most of the time, the value of Bell’s forensic work is to rule out other unidentified remains, to save detectives hours upon hours of investigation. Statewide, he sees a cold hit maybe once every couple of years.

Bell analyzed the teeth in this skull.

Every mouth is unique. Consider, Bell said, that there are five sides to each tooth, different dental work that can be done on each side, teeth that can go missing, and so on. The skull had no lower jaw, just the upper teeth. What remained was still enough to tell Bell who the man was, beyond a doubt.

The tooth data was sent to NCIC. The database sent back a list of the 35 people whose bites could prove a possible match. The third person on the list, Crawford-Nelson, was local to Everett. Bell quickly put the two together, on Aug. 31.

Before that, there was no reason to think the skull belonged to Crawford-Nelson.

“This is a perfect example of how the system works,” he said.

And it shows how critically important it is, in cases of missing people, for authorities to have up-to-date copies of dental records. Teeth fall out. People get fillings and root canals from different dentists.

The cause and manner of death for Crawford-Nelson remain undetermined.

That could change, with new evidence.

For now, a family has some answers. In life, Crawford-Nelson had many struggles. He used heroin and spent much of his adulthood in prison.

“We really tried to help Jonathan over the years,” his mother, Gwendelynn Nelson, said Friday.

He hadn’t been seen for about a month when his family reported him missing to the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office in February 2016. His face ran on Washington’s Most Wanted the following month, when the Department of Corrections had warrants to arrest him.

He was loved by his family, his mother said. The homicide detectives who worked the case at the sheriff’s office went above and beyond to try to find him, she said.

“I’m sad,” Nelson said. “But I’m very happy that he’s back with us.”

Caleb Hutton: 425-339-3454; Twitter: @snocaleb.

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