Detectives have searched ever since for the man’s identity, his family and his killer. Like a dozen other cases of unidentified human remains in Snohomish County, he is a body without a name.
“All investigators know for sure is that the body is of a white man,” read an article in The Daily Herald on June 18, 1994.
Yet even the basics about this John Doe have been questioned and contradicted in recent years. The revisions began when a forensic artist, Natalie Murry, unboxed the skull in 2016. She did a double-take. Murry glanced again at the writing on the box to ensure it was the right skull. She’s not a doctor and she doesn’t consider herself an expert in anthropology. But the former cop has reconstructed over 100 faces, re-envisioning eyes, noses and smiles.
Right away, she said, she saw the man had telltale signs of African ancestry. To Murry, the skull didn’t look like it belonged to a white man in his 20s. A state forensic anthropologist based in King County, Dr. Kathy Taylor, examined the skeleton and confirmed the man was most likely black or biracial. The color of his skin, like so many other clues about his life, had been lost in the murky corner of the lake.
Today, Snohomish County cold case investigators wonder if the man’s family heard about the discovery, but dismissed the notion that he was their missing loved one. According to the updated findings, the race, age and weight released to the public missed the mark in 1994.
“It’s a shame,” Murry said, “that so many years were wasted looking for the wrong guy.”
Seven of hearts
Lake Stickney is brownish-blue and shaped like a kidney bean. A third of a mile at its widest point, it sits between Lynnwood, Mill Creek and Mukilteo. People reel in large-mouth bass and rainbow trout from spring to fall. Trout might wander under a forest of lily pads west of the boat ramp, but it’s not a forgiving spot for fishing hooks.
Old aerial photos and property records show the wall-to-wall houses on the east and south ends of the lake were built before 1994. Neighborhoods have grown up nearby, however, in cul-de-sacs between I-5 and Highway 99. No one lives on the waterfront at the northwest corner of the lake, where today there’s a new park with trails, and wetlands fringed with mature alders and reed grass.
Deputies boarded a boat to retrieve the corpse that sunny afternoon in June 1994. Decomposition suggested the man could have been in the water since winter. Someone at Lake Stickney had seen what looked like a mannequin floating in the lake around New Year’s Day, according to archived reports kept in a binder at the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office.
But today’s detectives are wary of treating that timeline like it’s the only possibility.
Precious few clues were discovered.
His pair of black socks.
His size 10 ½ work boots, brown with Vulcan soles.
His belt, with a buckle, 1 ¼ inches wide.
His 33-by-36-inch shrink-to-fit Levi’s, misnoted in one police report as 30-by-36, an error repeated in news reports.
His Hanes underwear, which was, in fact, a slender size 30.
His left collarbone, which had been broken and healed.
His root canal and fillings.
The man had no fingerprints or hair. His face had to be rebuilt with some conjecture.
Rubber pegs were glued to his skull, to estimate the depth of soft tissue for someone with his build. A sheriff’s deputy, who had been trained in how to make forensic sketches, filled in the blanks of the man’s features.
The picture was printed in thousands of decks of playing cards a decade ago, when the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office gave out the cards in jails and prisons. They hoped the cards would conjure memories and tips. A handful of cases in the deck have seen arrests — enough to make a winning hand in poker. One missing woman found out her face was on the eight of hearts, and phoned deputies to say she was alive and well in California.
On each card is a victim’s name. That name is the heart of every cold case. Only one card, the seven of hearts, lists the pseudonym John Doe, under a black-and-white portrait of a man with a short, dark mullet.
“This is a sketch of what he might have looked like,” the card says.
Detectives spent years poring through missing person reports nationwide, zeroing in on cases where a mug shot, age, or physical description could be a match, finding many of those people, alive, along the way.
But as for solving their own case, they kept coming up empty.
“I’ve got nada, nothing, absolutely nothing,” a detective told The Daily Herald in November 1994.
A police sketch is not a photo. The hope in these cases is to rebuild a face with enough of a likeness to jog the memory of a father, a sister, a wife or an old friend. Much of what goes into a reconstruction is based on the skull. It gives the blueprint for eyebrows, cheeks and lips. It shows asymmetry and proportion.
With each drawing, Murry asks herself: “What makes that skull different than any other skull?”
Other traits are educated guesses based on the body.
At autopsy, the weight of the man in Lake Stickney was estimated at 135 to 170 pounds. A guess at his height was rough, 5-foot-10, give or take two inches. He was believed to be white, Hispanic or mixed race.
Years later, when Dr. Taylor examined the skeleton, she came to new conclusions. The man was closer to 180 or 200 pounds, about 5-foot-11, and black or “black/white.” And he was not so young. He was probably in his 40s, at least.
Murry drew two possible faces, based on Dr. Taylor’s findings.
Some artistic choices in her digital drawings, like haircuts, are guesses.
On the left, the man’s skin is lighter, his hair is buzzed and he’s unshaven, with an ever-so-slightly crooked blank expression. He could be as young as 35.
On the right, his hairline has receded farther, the hair is curlier and the ears poke out less. He could be 55.
The newer sketches have a vague resemblance to the man on the seven of hearts, mostly in the arches of the brow and the bridge of the nose. But side-by-side, the difference is startling. The old drawing, Murry said, was not bad. The deputy was working off the medical reports of the time.
A poster of Murry’s drawings hangs in the lobby of the Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office near Paine Field, along with a dozen other exhibits on unidentified remains. More than half have portraits by Murry. Some don’t, because the skulls were never found.
Murry is a former officer with the Kent Police Department. She suffered a back injury that left her unable to carry a gun belt. She retired in 2004, and became a full-time forensic artist, contracting with police around the country.
She still glues rubber to bone, like in the ’90s, and she uses old, trusty charts to recreate tissue in human faces. She has cringed looking back at some drawings from early in her career. She has seen her portraits next to photos of the actual people, in cases she helped solve.
“It may not look anything like that person to me,” Murry said. “But something in that drawing sparked something in the family. I may not see it, but that they were able to see it is the whole point.”
Many people missing in Washington state were ruled out long ago as being the man in Lake Stickney.
“But people don’t always report people missing, and people travel out of state, too,” said Jim Scharf, a detective for the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office.
Anyone who reported someone missing in the 1990s, or earlier, should double-check that their report is still active with local police, Scharf said. The older the case, the more likely it’s lost. (The county’s oldest active investigation of an unidentified body is from 1977.)
Scharf’s name has been in the national media lately. He has been pioneering a new police technique, using public ancestry databases — along with crime scene DNA and the skills of a genealogist — to build family trees for cold case suspects.
This spring, Scharf announced a long-awaited breakthrough and arrest in the local killings of a Canadian couple in 1987. The defendant is charged with aggravated murder. He could face the death penalty. He was never considered a suspect, until genetic genealogy pointed Scharf to him.
The same technique helped to catch a suspect in the Golden State Killer case.
Someday soon, genetic genealogy could be the key to the Lake Stickney man’s identity, and others. To Scharf, finally learning a name is when this case will begin anew.
“That’s the first step in solving the homicide investigation, to figure out who’s dead,” he said. “If you don’t know who’s dead, it’s pretty hard to figure out who did it.”
Remains from three unidentified Snohomish County bodies were recently sent to a private lab, in hopes that autosomal DNA can be extracted. Autosomal DNA comes from the 22 pairs of chromosomes that don’t determine a person’s sex. That data can be run through massive public genealogy databases in search of relatives.
Bone from the Lake Stickney man was not part of the shipment. He’s on a waiting list to go next.
In the meantime, tips can be directed to investigators at 425-388-3845.
Caleb Hutton: 425-339-3454; firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @snocaleb.