LYNNWOOD — Over the past 25 years, forensic artists have tried and tried and tried to reconstruct the face of a man who was shot in the head and dumped in Lake Stickney.
Now a new drawing may depict the closest likeness of the man in life. Or at least that’s the hope. With the right tip, Snohomish County sheriff’s detectives hope to restore his name to him, and eventually, figure out who killed him.
A fisherman found the man’s decomposed body on a warm sunny afternoon, June 11, 1994, under the lily pads of a small bean-shaped lake south of Everett. It was homicide. Based on a post-mortem examination, he was likely shot months before the discovery, perhaps a year or more, long enough for his body to decompose beyond recognition.
In recent months, the Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office sent two samples of the man’s remains to a genetic laboratory, but not enough DNA could be extracted. The office’s investigators are hopeful that a third sample — of teeth — will provide enough of his genetic profile to start building his family tree, and ultimately to identify him, through a powerful forensic tool known as genetic genealogy.
As investigators await results from the pending extraction, they are looking for help from the public through tips.
Something was unusual about this man’s teeth. All four of bottom incisors had gaps between them. Not many people have a smile like that, and perhaps that will jog someone’s memory.
You will notice something else right away, if you compare the four drawings from over the past 2½ decades.
In the first, from shortly after the body’s discovery, he looks vaguely Caucasian, or vaguely Hispanic, or possibly of mixed race. The drawing is now considered obsolete, based on a flawed medical report that misjudged the man’s probable weight and age.
In the second and third, he looks black.
As part of a new effort to solve the case in 2016, forensic anthropologist Dr. Kathy Taylor examined the skull and updated the findings in the man’s case file. She wrote he was likely 40 or older, about 5-foot-11, 180 to 200 pounds, and either black or of multiple races. So the artist made two drawings of a man with dark skin, one where he looks like hecould be as young as 35, another where he could be 60.
In the new drawing completed in November, it appears he could be Asian, or again, of an ambiguous ethnic background.
His nose has been reshaped, in light of a fairly new study out of Scotland about how forensic artists can more accurately construct that part of the face. He looks a little weathered. His lips are thinning. His skin sags a bit, but he has the stout look of a bodybuilder who is getting up there in years.
A better man
At first glance, the portraits may as well show four different people. They’re not exactly doppelgängers.
Yet each reconstruction was based on the same skull, and a closer look reveals proportions of the eyes, ears, nose, cheeks and brows are the same. It’s like a case study of how a forensic artist can interpret the same data points in different ways, depending on educated guesses of a person’s age, build and heritage.
“Proportion is the most important thing, and proportion is still there,” said Natalie Murry, the artist who did drawings No. 2, 3 and 4.
Sometimes a trait in a skull strongly suggests African (or European or Asian) heritage. But then, when the person is identified through some other means, like dental records or DNA, investigators can discover their best guess was wrong.
It has happened here before, in a recent case in Snohomish County, when the same forensic artist set out to reconstruct a skull based on another unidentified man. He was found dead in the same general area of the county. That man was identified so quickly that the drawing never saw a public release by the county medical examiner’s office. Based on the medical report, Murry had drawn him as a black man. In reality, he was white, with no known African ancestry.
Needless to say, putting bad information out to the public can backfire in a case like this. It could be the difference between a family picking up the phone because they believe the police found their long-missing brother, or son, or husband — or dismissing the possibility, never calling in a tip, and leaving the case unsolved forever.
Some of the things Murry puts into her drawings are outright guesses, like eye color, hair and other things that can’t be preserved in bone, or at least extrapolated from bone.
“You don’t know what the skin looks like,” Murry said. “You can’t tell how this person is going to portray in life.”
If a person has a more colorful mix of ancestries, then the skin tone, eye shape and other traits become more unpredictable.
“You can’t tell what their hair is going to look like, straight or curly,” she said. “That’s the challenge with what happens as races intermingle. The skulls get more difficult to pin down.”
So in this case, Murry’s new drawing was ambiguous on purpose. Maybe he looked more like the men she drew in 2016. Maybe he looked more like the man in the new picture.
We are all unique, and that goes for our skulls, too. With any sketch in a case like this, the hope is that a defining trait — a crooked smile, a particular jawline, asymmetrical eyes — can pique someone’s memory, to the point that they call police.
There are some concrete facts about the Lake Stickney John Doe, but not many. In the murky water that day, he was wearing black socks; size 10½ work boots with Vulcan soles; a 1 ¼ inches wide belt with a buckle; a pair of 33-by-36-inch shrink-to-fit Levi’s; and Hanes underwear, size 30. His left collarbone had been broken and healed. He’d seen a dentist for a root canal and fillings.
A theme of his enigma has been that investigators don’t want to rule anything out about his personal history or the timeline of when he died, because there are so many question marks.
How long had he been in the water? Someone reported what looked like a mannequin in the lake around New Year’s Day 1994, but it’s unclear if that was his body or something else.
Had he ever been reported missing? And if he was, is the missing person report still active somewhere? Possibly not. Records get purged, lost and forgotten, and many missing person cases have gone dormant over the past 25 years.
Of the most recent cases where the Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office has been able to pin names to long-unidentified remains, the circumstances vary wildly. One man was reported missing in the 1970s in Seattle; one was reported missing 1½ years before a piece of his skull was found near Gold Bar; another was reported as missing but later removed from a database; and one man was never reported missing at all.
Was the Lake Stickney man local? Did he come from outside the county or state? Why did he end up here, of all places, in a small brown-green lake flanked by waterfront houses?
Murry, a former Kent police officer, has revised and brushed up forensic drawings in cases other than this one.
One of her most recent was an unidentified girl known as Orange Socks, a homicide victim in Georgetown, Texas. To Murry, the old drawing felt two-dimensional, much like the first Stickney sketch. The upper lip didn’t look right. And she wanted to rebuild the nose, like in the new Stickney drawing.
Her picture of Orange Socks was made public last summer.
Days later a woman walked into the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office where Murry works in Texas. She knew that “pug”-like nose anywhere. It was her sister, Debra Jackson.
“For the last 15 years, she’d worked here in town,” Murry said. “She had no idea her sister was buried here.”
Until then, her family didn’t know what became of her after fall 1979.
Somewhere out there, the family of the Lake Stickney John Doe is still waiting. Tips can be directed to 425-388-3845.
Caleb Hutton: 425-339-3454; firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @snocaleb.