Solved: After 41 years, Air Force vet’s name restored by DNA

Steven Knox, a bright young man with a knack for languages, vanished in 1980 in Everett. Now, his family knows his fate.

A man was found dead in the Snohomish River in June 1980. More than 40 years later, cold case investigators used DNA and forensic genealogy to identify him as Steven Lee Knox, a U.S. Air Force veteran from Wisconsin.

A man was found dead in the Snohomish River in June 1980. More than 40 years later, cold case investigators used DNA and forensic genealogy to identify him as Steven Lee Knox, a U.S. Air Force veteran from Wisconsin.

EVERETT — Steven Lee Knox’s sister cannot pinpoint the date her brother went missing, but she knows it was around the time Mount St. Helens erupted into a plume of ashes. That was May 18, 1980.

Hardly a month later, boaters found an unknown man’s body in the Snohomish River. It looked like he had been in the water for weeks or months, dressed in blue-and-white swimming trunks, with tan Big Mac coveralls tangled around his legs.

At the time it was considered an apparent drowning.

It took 41 years and advances in DNA technology for investigators to identify the deceased man as Knox, then 24, a U.S. Air Force veteran from Wisconsin.

The Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office confirmed his name in July with the help of forensic genealogy, a technique that has cracked a handful of other local cold cases over the past four years. Using DNA extracted from a leg bone, a death investigator plugged his genetic data into the ancestry website GEDmatch, in search of relatives who were missing a loved one. Knox’s identity was released to the public Thursday.

In an interview Friday, sister Janet Neitzel Knox remembered her brother as kindhearted and extremely bright, with a gift for picking up new languages. He spoke fluent German. Knox was an adventurer who always wanted to see more of the world. Fresh out of high school, he joined the military. He traveled around Europe, and when he returned to the United States, he moved to Washington, where he had extended family. His sister believes he lived in Everett for about 1½ years.

Then he vanished.

Steven Knox grew up with four brothers and a sister in Wisconsin. (Family photo.)

Steven Knox grew up with four brothers and a sister in Wisconsin. (Family photo.)

In heaven

Growing up, Steven Knox loved inner-tubing, biking and fishing with night crawlers at a favorite creek.

“We would catch anything we could catch,” Knox’s sister said. “We liked the walleyes and the pike. My family ate a lot of fish.”

His four brothers and one sister were raised Catholic, the sister said. His mother was a homemaker. His father worked on heavy machinery.

Some of the Knox brothers went to high school “up north,” in Medford, Wisconsin, where the pastimes are deer hunting, snowmobiling and ice skating.

“It’s beautiful,” said Neitzel Knox, the youngest sibling. “Lakes and forests. It’s a lot like where you live, but you don’t have winter snow.”

The Knox family moved about 200 miles south by the time Steven was in his teens. For the Stoughton High School yearbook in 1973, he wore a blazer and a tie, with his brown bangs swooshing to his eyebrows. Next to his portrait is a list of extracurriculars: Science Club, Forensics and the American Field Service. There’s also a curious quote from the Austrian author Karl Kraus.

“A journalist is stimulated by a deadline; he writes when he has the time.”

Knox earned good marks in school. He liked to write. Like all of his siblings, he got swimming lessons at the insistence of their father, his sister said. He listened to Cat Stevens records. He took a trip to Florida around the time he graduated, and his sister still has a faded color picture of the two of them on a sunny day, beside lawn chairs and a palm tree.

Other family members had gone into the Navy, the sister said. Knox chose a different path. He served in the Air Force in Germany during the Cold War, as well as at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, his sister said. Military records show he was honorably discharged April 22, 1977.

“Even when he went into the military, he would call me and tell me about his adventures,” Neitzel Knox said. “Someday I’m going to meet up in heaven with him and tell him about mine.”

At the time he disappeared, Knox lived on Wetmore Avenue in north Everett, a short walk south of the mouth of the river.

1973 yearbook photo of Steven Lee Knox. (Stoughton High School 1973 yearbook)

1973 yearbook photo of Steven Lee Knox. (Stoughton High School 1973 yearbook)

Out west

It’s a drive of almost 2,000 miles from southern Wisconsin to Dagmars Marina on the edge of Puget Sound, where the unidentified body was recovered June 20, 1980.

He’d been wearing a short-sleeved shirt with buttons and an undershirt with the brand Healthknit. An autopsy showed he’d eaten sliced potatoes as one of his final meals.

The remains had no signs of trauma, and exactly how he died is still undetermined.

The body in the water didn’t have a wallet or an ID. What remained of him could not be fingerprinted. He became a John Doe, case number 80-6-444. He was buried 10 days later, nameless, at Cypress Lawn Memorial Park in south Everett.

The unidentified man’s dental records remained on file at what was then the Snohomish County Coroner’s Office, but the “case very quickly went cold,” according to a medical examiner’s narrative of the death investigation.

Meanwhile, Knox’s parents wondered if he may have gone into a witness protection program, his sister said. Neitzel Knox feared her brother had been killed, and that the family would probably never find him.

Investigators could find no record that Knox’s name had ever been entered into local or national databases for missing people.

His mother Bernice died in 2001, with no closure about her son’s whereabouts. His father Raymond died in 2008.

Snohomish County sheriff’s detective Jim Scharf inherited dozens of unsolved cases in 2008, and his cold case team rediscovered this one in archives. But homicides were given the highest priority, and detectives had no solid evidence suggesting this was a suspicious death. It took years for the Snohomish Jetty John Doe’s case to be examined again in earnest.

The medical examiner’s office entered the case into the national missing person directory NamUs in 2016, as well as the FBI’s database NCIC.

Then a steady drip of cold cases began to get solved with the help of forensic genealogy. It brought new hope of finding this man’s family.

On the morning of Oct. 24, 2018, the man’s grave was exhumed by the cemetery, at no charge, on a plot with a marker that had been scrubbed away by time and weather. Under the soft wet dirt, investigators found a body in a humble casket with Gothic-style handles. The vault had been flooded by groundwater, dried out, flooded again, dried, season after season, for 38 years. He would need to be identified through his bones.

A new forensic examination suggested the John Doe stood 5-foot-5 to 6 feet tall. State forensic anthropologist Dr. Kathy Taylor estimated he was in his 20s, most likely Caucasian. She found he had a healed fracture in his left foot. He had a slender build, small hips, with a weight measured at 160 pounds in the original case notes. He had brown hairs on his body.

The John Doe was featured in The Daily Herald in 2019, when forensic artist Natalie Murry began reconstructing a likeness of his face at the King County Medical Examiner’s Office, using his skull.

“Good teeth,” one note said in the case file.

He must have had a nice smile.

Forensic artist Natalie Murry reconstructed the face of a man found dead in the Snohomish River in 1980.

Forensic artist Natalie Murry reconstructed the face of a man found dead in the Snohomish River in 1980.

Time and space

Death investigator Jane Jorgensen sent a sample of bone to the University of North Texas in early 2019, with the hope of obtaining a good DNA sample to be compared in CODIS, a federal database of millions of people convicted of felonies. Knox wasn’t a convicted criminal, and his death preceded CODIS’ existence by about a decade. There were no matches, but dozens of potential names were ruled out through DNA and dental records.

Over the next two years more bones were mailed to two private labs specializing in genetic analysis: DNA Solutions in Oklahoma and Othram, Inc., in Texas. Give or take, it costs about $5,000 for DNA extraction and analysis at Othram. In this case, the lab work was funded through a larger donation by audiochuck, the media company behind podcasts like “Crime Junkie Podcast,” “Anatomy of a Murder” and “Solvable.”

The genetic material was highly degraded and contaminated with bacteria. Othram still managed to pull DNA from a left femur — enough to upload into the public genealogy website GEDmatch. Genealogy sleuths use the site to share family trees and genetic profiles that had been uploaded to other ancestry sites, like Ancestry.com or 23andMe. Law enforcement and death investigators have made extensive use of the site, too, amid some controversy over privacy concerns.

In this case, so many forensic tools had been exhausted. It wasn’t a matter of not trying hard enough, Othram CEO David Mittelman said Friday. This John Doe turned out to have roots many states away, in a case that had gone unsolved for decades.

“There are some cases that are distorted by time and space, so they’re going to need DNA testing,” Mittelman said.

Once she had the DNA profile, Jorgensen pieced together the unknown man’s family tree herself, rather quickly, because she found a close relative’s profile in GEDmatch. She reached out to two possible family members. One of them was Neitzel Knox, who got a text while watching TV. Over the phone, the investigator explained what she knew, that it appeared one of her relatives was a longtime John Doe in Snohomish County. All of Neitzel Knox’s brothers were alive and well — three in Wisconsin, one on each coast — except for Steven, the one who lived in Everett.

The medical examiner’s office asked for any pictures that showed Steven Knox’s teeth. The sister found he always seemed to smile with his mouth shut, except in one photo where all the boys had to dress up in flannel shirts for a picture day. You can barely see his upper incisors.

Jorgensen contacted the U.S. Air Force’s Cold Case Unit, who provided dental records from Knox’s time in the service.

Three days later, on July 15, forensic odontologist Dr. Gary Bell confirmed it was a match for the John Doe.

Neitzel Knox hopes to bring her brother’s remains home to Wisconsin, to bury him with family.

“I’m very thankful that they found him,” she said. “My family’s at peace, but we know there’s more pieces that they can’t give us. … We just left it God’s hands, and we figured that some day, something might come along, and it did.”

Neitzel Knox asked anybody who knew her brother to please email her at janneitzel@sbcglobal.net.

For the sister, the grieving isn’t over.

“I’ve been grieving for 40 years,” she said. “I hope somebody will have compassion enough to tell us a few stories about my brother to cheer us up, or to give us some information about what happened.”

Any other tips about the case can be directed to the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office at 425-388-3845. Or dial 911.

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

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