MILL CREEK — His bones were found in the rocky dirt of a homeless camp carpeted with old blankets, half-empty soda bottles and crumpled cups of instant mac and cheese.
That’s about all investigators know for sure about him.
In September 2020, a man living in the camp dug a hole at random to bury some garbage, just out of view of office buildings on the other side of 130th Street SE. In the ground, the man found what he later called a “big bone,” said Dave Bilyeu, a major crimes detective with the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office.
“A lot of people have asked me,” Bilyeu said, “‘How in the world did that guy pick that spot on Earth to dig a hole for garbage and find a body?’ You tell me.”
The man in the camp hesitated. He did not go to the sheriff’s office right away. Instead, he reburied the bone. He didn’t want to attract police to his camp because he didn’t trust them. In the meantime, Bilyeu said, the man tried to sleep, but at night he felt extremely scared that a killer was still there, watching him.
The man confided in a woman who lived in another camp. She did not believe him when he told her what he found. Days later, they dug up the spot again and found more bones and a human skull. Still, the man did not want police in his camp. So the pair hatched a plan, Bilyeu said. They would put the bones in a white plastic garbage bag, bring them to the nearest police station at night, and leave the remains on the front steps with a note, to be found in the morning.
“Luckily,” the detective said, “they did not do that.”
“He found very little,” Bilyeu said. “We kept excavating and found a lot more.”
What was left of the McCollum Park John Doe was entirely skeletal.
The dead man’s real name, as well as who took his life, have gone unsolved for almost a year. Detectives are now asking for the public’s help to solve the case.
Go north on I-5, hang a right off exit 186, then take the very next right on 128th Street SW. For years, that was the way to the Puget Park Drive-in, and not much else. It got much darker at night here in the 1990s, especially east of the freeway.
“So, think back … this was a pretty isolated area,” Bilyeu said. “I could be totally wrong, but if you’re a King County bad guy, you’ve killed somebody, and you want to get rid of the body? ‘I’m going to drive to hillbilly Snohomish County.’ You know, you get north of 164th, it starts getting pretty dark along the freeway — right? — because it’s just trees.”
That’s just one theory, Bilyeu cautioned. Police have also been investigating whether the John Doe could be somebody local who has been missing for a long time.
The shallow grave was dug maybe 100 feet south of 130th. Today, in the former drive-in lot down the street, where people caught double features until 2010, there’s a Swedish hospital emergency room and many new apartments. Historic aerial photos show offices, restaurants and cookie-cutter homes have only sprouted up in recent years. Patches of woods were spared by developers, and a 13-acre slice of forest became a well-known spot for homeless people to camp.
A state forensic anthropologist, Dr. Kathy Taylor, determined the McCollum Park John Doe most likely has been dead much longer than the man had lived in the camp, perhaps even as long as that man has been alive.
“There’s no way the guy who found him was involved,” Bilyeu said.
Exactly when the John Doe died is an open question. According to a new poster released with the hope of generating tips, he might have been dead for a year, or maybe 30 years. The unidentified man may have been as short as 5-foot-3 or as tall as 5-foot-9, according to the findings of the anthropologist. He most likely lived into his mid-20s, 30s or 40s. His bones suggested his heritage was Native American, Asian, Hispanic or mixed race.
The Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office confirmed the death was homicide. Authorities declined to release the exact cause of death, out of concern for a sensitive investigation.
That week in late September 2020, it had rained hard. Investigators sifted through muddy piles of garbage, as well as a caved-in rusted metal box about the size of a small shipping container, stuffed with mattresses and other debris. Detectives fanned out and spoke with people living in camps around the lot. Nobody knew anything about a body.
About a week later, a search team came in and cleared brush with clippers. They combed through the camp with rakes, down on their knees, in search of evidence. They found nothing of value to the investigation.
The man had reburied the bones he found, this time inside the garbage bag. Detectives recovered those first, then dug up more. Almost an entire skeleton came out of the grave.
This month, long logs with sharpened ends still guarded the abandoned camp, like a fence or a piece of a medieval wall. Overturned orange shopping carts from Home Depot lined a short path into the woods. All kinds of trash was still strewn around the camp, and the pit was open, about 3 feet deep, wide enough for a body.
The first step
McCollum Park is about a quarter-mile east of the grave, so the John Doe’s nickname is something of a misnomer. But like the man, the woods didn’t really have a name at the time.
An orange public notice was staked along the roadside last week, announcing plans for a 47,500-square-foot medical office building with multiple stories, on a little over 2½ acres. The application date on the permit was Oct. 1, 2020, less than a week after the body was found.
Since then, the man’s mouth has been examined by a forensic odontologist, Dr. Gary Bell. He compared the teeth with dental records of a few dozen missing people from the FBI’s National Crime Information Center, as well as a few dozen men missing in the region. Almost all of them were swiftly eliminated as possibilities.
In March, forensic artist Natalie Murry drew new digital sketches of the McCollum Park John Doe and the Sultan Basin John Doe, whose skeleton was found in woods north of Sultan in 2007. She photographed their skulls and used forensic techniques to estimate the depth of their skin and other tissue, to rebuild their faces.
In the remains found near Mill Creek, the odontologist noted the man looked to have an “overjet,” a malocclusion like an overbite, as well as what’s known as “lip incompetence,” meaning it was likely difficult for him to hold his lips together at rest, something like the title character in the movie “Napoleon Dynamite.”
So the artist drew the John Doe with his mouth slightly open, showing his real upper incisors. Murry gave him brown skin and brown hair in her digital drawing — leaving things like his race and age ambiguous while still trying to reveal what the skull told her about his facial structure. The idea of a sketch like this is to capture just enough of a likeness that a family member or an old friend will phone in a tip.
Authorities are trying other avenues to find the man’s name, too.
Death investigator Jane Jorgensen with the Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office sent bone — foot bones and molars — to the private lab Othram in July.
The lab can extract DNA to be plugged into public genealogy websites, with the aim of finding his relatives, retracing his family tree and using those clues to ultimately uncover his identity. Othram offered to help raise money to crowdfund the lab work. Once the webpage is set up, donations can be made through dnasolves.com/articles.
Snohomish County investigators have made frequent use of the technique, known as forensic genealogy, to crack other cold case homicides in the past four years.
Finding the name of a slain person is the first step in finding the killer.
The McCollum Doe case is still being investigated by the sheriff’s office team that handles fresh homicides. Bilyeu would prefer to solve it soon, rather than pass it to the sheriff’s team tasked with cold cases.
“We’d like to get this person returned to their loved ones,” Bilyeu said.
Tips about the McCollum Park John Doe can be directed to the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office at 425-388-3845, or you can go online at snohomishcountywa.gov/303/Anonymous-Tips. The case number is 2020-151635.
Caleb Hutton: 425-339-3454; firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @snocaleb.
Have you ever reported someone missing?
Many older missing person reports have been purged from police databases. If you have reported someone as missing in the past, call your local police department to confirm your loved one is still listed.
Are you comfortable sharing your DNA with police?
Anyone who has uploaded their DNA profile to a private ancestry database via a test kit, such as Ancestry or 23andme, can share their genetic data on GEDmatch.com. That’s one of the main databases used by detectives and genetic genealogists to solve cold cases, with the permission of the user. The site has also been used to find lost relatives.