BOTHELL — A bottle of Aleve. A duffel bag. A .22-caliber Smith & Wesson pistol and a holster.
Those were a few of the things found near human remains in Marion, Montana, a small town west of Kalispell, on Oct. 26, 2003.
The skeleton was missing a torso and at least one hand. Adidas shoes, size 11, were found on the body. His hair color and eye color were unknown. He was believed to be between 18 and 49.
Over 18 years later, the remains were identified this week as Steven Gooch, a Bothell man, marking the culmination of years of genetic research.
Gooch’s family last heard from him in 1995, when he was 29. His family told authorities he was in San Diego and may have been headed to Las Vegas. He was reported missing in 1996.
Seven years later, a husband and wife hunting in the woods found a gun at the top of a cliff — then a human skull at the base. He was nicknamed Cliff Doe.
For over a decade, all police in Montana could find were “dead ends,” said Shelley Giebeig, deputy coroner at the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office.
“It was one of those cases you always kind of heard about around the office,” she told The Daily Herald.
A few years ago, Giebeig dove into the case. She started by entering the little information authorities did have into a national database of missing people. Then, in 2019, she teamed up with the DNA Doe Project, a national volunteer-led nonprofit that aims to identify deceased people using forensic genealogy. Once a DNA profile has been extracted, researchers can compare it to genetic profiles of relatives on public databases, then build a family tree in reverse to identify the deceased.
The technique has been used to identify several longtime John and Jane Does here in Snohomish County, including a 17-year-old girl murdered in Everett in 1977, an Air Force vet from Everett missing since 1980 and a man found dead in a Mill Creek shed in 2015.
Volunteers first found very distant matches for Cliff Doe, said Ruth Foreman, a retired Texas woman who led the DNA Doe Project team investigating this case. Those ancestors were from the 1600s and 1700s.
“You can’t begin to research the descendants of an ancestor that’s in the 1700s,” Foreman said in an interview. “You have to work on it long enough that you can find matches that are related at least in the middle 1800s, because you’re looking at hundreds and hundreds of descendants.”
They eventually found ancestors in Kentucky coal country in the early 19th century, she said. Their descendants migrated to Indiana. Foreman thought that’s where they would find their match. With those clues, her team continued to piece together who this John Doe might be.
A couple weeks ago, the team sent Giebeig five people believed to be close relatives of the unidentified man. Researchers knew they were close. Foreman warned law enforcement they might be notifying next of kin of their family member’s death.
MacDonald asked the first person who called back if he had any relatives who’d gone missing.
“Well, my son,” the man responded, to Giebeig’s surprise.
The man sent his DNA.
It confirmed the nameless man was his son.
“There’s such a sense of relief because you feel like there’s a family out there waiting and wanting answers and they have no idea what happened to their person,” Foreman said. “And you might be the only one that can give them that answer.”
Many times, volunteers identify long-deceased John Does but find there’s no one still alive who really cares. Gooch’s father still needed closure, and that made this case all the more gratifying, Foreman said.
It took the DNA Doe Project more than three years to crack the case, making it one of the nonprofit’s longest-running. Their average is one or two months, Foreman said, noting identifying this John Doe became an “obsession” for her. She spent 2,000 hours trying to figure it out.
At times over those three years, Foreman and her team weren’t sure they could solve the case.
Now police will try to determine the circumstances leading to Gooch’s death. The cause and manner of death remain pending, Flathead County Sheriff Brian Heino said. The Montana state crime lab did an examination, but the lack of a complete set of remains has posed a challenge.
“There’s still a lot of work to do to try to figure out how he got here and try to get more answers, if we can,” Giebeig said. “I don’t know if we’ll get those answers.”