Remains found in Mill Creek shed still unidentified

MILL CREEK — The tiny, one-room shed was a home.

It had a shingled roof and a lock that only worked from the inside. It had reading materials and a place to hang up clothes. At one point, an electrical cord had been snaked over from a nearby building. It apparently powered a light bulb.

The shed’s resident was found dead here more than a year ago, on Jan. 11, 2015. Authorities believe his body remained there, unobserved, since late 2012.

The shed had become overgrown with brambles in the woods of Mill Creek. The location is between Ninth Avenue SE and Highway 527, north of North Creek Park.

Thirteen months after the body was found, the man’s name still is unknown, along with how he died. His death has not been forgotten, though.

The Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office hopes to wrap up a forensic and anthropological study in the coming weeks. They’re also working with Mill Creek police.

“The examination and identification of skeletal remains is one of the most challenging types of forensic investigations,” said Heather Oie, a manager at the medical examiner’s office.

Investigators hope the study will provide information about the person’s race, age and height, she said. It also could narrow the window of death and offer clues to identification. The medical examiner has not made an official determination on gender, but police believe the body belonged to a man.

The case started with a 911 call. Two men, believed to be homeless, had been in the woods earlier that day. They saw the shed, opened the door and saw the body. They told a friend, who later informed police.

Officers couldn’t find the shed on their own, so they brought the 911 caller out with them to look. It still took time to spot it among the foliage, Mill Creek detective Sgt. Kate Hamilton said.

The medical examiner’s office collected the remains. At first, after news broke of the discovery, people were calling the police department, asking if the body was a missing brother or cousin, Hamilton said.

One man went so far as to submit his own DNA for comparison. While waiting for the test results, the man found his brother listed as an inmate in an area jail. The calls have tapered off.

None of the leads have panned out so far. Investigators returned to the shed to search again. They found a possible clue — grocery store membership cards, the kind used to obtain discounts. That went nowhere. The cards were registered to women. The dead man likely picked up the cards somewhere along the way, Hamilton said.

The man’s story comes with a bit of local lore. Police have not confirmed the tale, but they were told the former property owner may have met the man some 20 years ago.

The story goes that the property owner heard a noise outside one winter and saw footprints in the snow. He found a homeless man who had made the prints and gave the man some blankets to keep warm.

In the spring, the property owner built the man a shed where he could live.

“That was the story I was told,” Hamilton said.

The owner’s sons had checked on the shed in recent years, after the homeless man is believed to have died. They didn’t spot a body.

The man later was found lying on a makeshift bed fashioned from layers of foam, Hamilton said. He was on his side underneath blankets.

“There was no disturbance within the little structure,” she said. “Nothing was knocked over. They found $20 in there, so they didn’t think there was any foul play.”

There was no obvious trauma or wounds. Dental records often are used to identify human remains. The man didn’t have many teeth left, though. There was a newspaper in the shed from October 2012, a possible clue that may date when he died.

The man’s genetic information has been entered into a national database for missing and unidentified people. Mill Creek police have been notified of a few potential matches over time but nothing has worked out so far, Hamilton said.

A bicycle also was found in the brambles that grew up around the shed.

“It appeared he had been living there for quite a while,” Hamilton said. “… It wasn’t just someone who’d decided to sleep there for the night. He had set it up like this was his little residence.”

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