Sultan Basin John Doe Case Needs Public’s Help

On April 9, 2007, two timber surveyors pulled over their vehicle near milepost 9 on Sultan Basin Road, which travels through Sultan, Washington. They stopped to survey the adjacent woods for a logging job they planned to bid on.

On their way back to the vehicle, the surveyors made a gruesome discovery in what was described as a densely overgrown area with downed trees and ferns.

Perhaps 400 yards from the road, below a rocky cliff, they came upon a primitive shelter, a tarp draped from a rope secured between two trees.

A man’s skeletal remains were found off Sultan Basin Road in 2007, in an overgrown woods. (Courtesy Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office)

A few steps away from the campsite, they saw a jawbone, one tooth with a silver filling. The men quickly departed the scene and reported their discovery to the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Department.

Solving Case Proves Difficult

As with most unidentified persons cases, there is someone out there wondering what happened to their loved one or friend. That’s why it is so important to solve this case and restore Sultan Basin John Does’ identify.

No matter how experienced police detectives and criminology experts may be, cases are going to come along that just can’t be solved – at least not immediately.

Today, there are many resources, forensic sciences and technologies available to help solve unidentified person cases. For instance, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s facial recognition program, phenotyping (where DNA profiles are used to estimate what a person would look like), the FBI’s Next Generation Identification System (where jaws and teeth can be compared to dental X-rays), countless databases, and forensic genealogy.

Public’s Help Needed

This case is close to being solved, but is currently stalled due to insufficient DNA profiles in the family research genealogy databases to more narrowly define family relationships.

Therefore, the Snobomish County Sheriff’s Office is once again seeking the public’s help. Call 425-388-3393 if you have any information, but also share this article with others who could be the one who identifies Sultan Basin John Doe.

Attempts to Solve this Case

Onsite Investigation. Detectives found the rest of the skull, other scattered human bones, clothing, and some survival essentials at the campsite. Located were two Air Jordan tennis shoes, two black and gray flex gloves, one gray sock, an off-white T-shirt, a blue fleece vest, a bluish Timberland beanie, a green jacket, and a dark backpack containing a blue plastic razor and hair brush. Also at the site were a plastic Coca Cola bottle, Gatorade bottle, and blue antifreeze jug, which police suspect may have used to hold water gathered from the nearby creek.

Mysteriously absent from the site was any trace of food or other debris, such as an aluminum can, wrapper, shopping bag or other trash. There was no apparent fire pit. And no pants were discovered among the clothing. His leg bones were missing, too, including both femurs.

Anthropology. It was revealed by officials that the unidentified white male had been dead for a while, perhaps a year or as long as five years. His estimated age is 20-50 years old. His cause of death is still unknown. State Forensic Anthropologist Dr. Kathy Taylor said the man had suffered a head injury at or near the time of death. She said it’s possible he had been struck by another person, or a tree branch could have fallen on him.

2021 updated facial reconstruction drawing by artist Natalie Murry. (Courtesy of Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office.)
Outdated facial reconstruction shows forensic artist Natalie Murry’s first attempt to draw the face of an unidentified man in 2016. (Courtesy of Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office.)

Forensic Facial Reconstruction. To help solve this case, forensic artist Natalie Murry created a facial reconstruction drawing of John Doe in 2016. That illustration was recently updated by applying new techniques adopted in the study of facial reconstruction since the original drawing, including how to extrapolate a person’s upper lip, eyebrows, eyelids, and ear lobes based on a skull. John Doe’s crooked nose is intentional, based on the fact that the right side of his nasal opening is much lower than the left.

DNA Techniques. In 2009, the crime lab performed mitochondrial DNA testing using DNA extracted from the back of the man’s skull. It was used to compare the DNA to missing people in the national database, CODIS. In 2011, another profile of nuclear DNA was extracted. Neither profile produced a match to a missing person.

In 2017 and 2018, unsuccessful attempts were made to extract a sufficient quantity of DNA from the man’s skeletal remains for whole genome sequencing. Then, more recently, the county medical examiner’s office sent John Doe’s jaw and hip bone to a private lab, where experts were able to recover 2.6 billionths of a gram of genetic material. The man’s genetic profile was uploaded to GEDmatch, a public database where people can look for matching relatives.

Genetic Genealogy. Genealogy is simply the study of one’s family tree or ancestry. Genetic genealogy uses DNA testing to determine genetic relationships between individuals. A positive test match with another individual may provide locations for further genealogical research, help discover living relatives, or confirm or deny suspected connections between families.

Once a genealogy researcher finds a DNA match, they will create traditional family trees to make connections and narrow their search.

Since 2019, genealogist Deb Stone has been trying to track down Sultan Basin John Doe’s family through GEDmatch and conventional ancestry research, with the goal of deducing his identity. So far, she has discovered the man has genetic ties to people in the Midwest (in particular Amish and Mennonite communities in Ohio and Indiana), but also on his other side to persons from Texas, Louisiana, and the Pacific Northwest.

If narrower DNA matches can be identified in the future, law enforcement will be able to use the information as new investigatory leads.

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