The corpse was on a steep embankment above Turtle Creek, masked in dense woods on a private 100-acre farm. Leaves and branches partially covered the remains. It was a half-mile to a mile from any roads.
“I remember taking my gun and kind of poking at his pants and his skull,” said Gary Gilbank, who found the body. “I was just a little bit dismayed.”
Since that November day in 1995, Rock County sheriff’s investigators have been trying to solve the mystery of the skeleton near the creek.
Detectives have explored missing persons, eyewitness accounts, serial killer theories and DNA evidence. The death is the agency’s only John Doe cold case.
Who is John Doe? How did he die? What was he doing in the middle of nowhere? Why hasn’t anyone reported him missing?
All detectives know is that he was 15 to 23 years old, about 140 pounds and 5 feet 6 inches tall. He had long dark hair with a beard.
“It would be nice to identify the person, to know who he is,” said detective Warren Yoerger, who is investigating the case. “I believe that there is somebody out there that is missing him.”
The bones were found at 9 a.m. Nov. 26, 1995, near Waite Road and Highway 140 in Bradford Township.
A red and green flannel jacket was over the skeleton like a blanket. Underneath, a T-shirt with the words “Welcome to Hell” and “Venom 1987” was around the torso.
A black quartz watch was around the wrist. A Budweiser butane lighter with the writing “Proud to be your Bud” was in a pant pocket.
A yellow tube of Carmex and a chrome pendant of a goat’s head were lying on the ground. One size 9½, black Nike Air tennis shoe was found nearby. The other was missing.
The skeleton was in pieces, with the pelvis found 6 feet from the skull. The body was on its stomach. The head was 4 feet from a barbed-wire fence.
Detectives researched missing persons, runaways, hit-and-run accidents and vehicle tows to find leads. Nothing turned up. Everyone was accounted for.
An autopsy could not determine the cause of death. The bones had no evidence of trauma or damaged bones.
A forensic pathologist thought the boy had died a year before. He estimated his age to be in the late teens.
Hair samples were taken to test for drugs. The results were negative for cocaine, codeine and morphine. The teeth showed the boy had received dental care.
The sheriff’s office issued a news release a few days after the body was found. News coverage provided several leads.
A man who lives along Turtle Creek was on his deck Oct. 16, 1994, when he saw a man walking in the creek. He told detectives the man was wearing camouflage pants and a flannel shirt.
He thought the man seemed intoxicated. He saw him fall in the water two or three times. He heard him yelling and screaming about his girlfriend or wife leaving him.
A second witness saw the same man.
She heard him say, “How could she do this to me?” She said the man tried to climb a bank to get out of the creek. He fell back down the hill.
When he saw her, he yelled, “What are you looking at. You’re just like the rest of them.”
He also yelled, “Get out of here and leave me alone.”
The woman last saw him sitting on the creek’s bank.
A third witness also saw a man with the same description. She also said the man was in the middle of the creek.
The man looked at her and yelled, “I’m a fugitive. You’ll read about me in the paper.”
That same night, a caller reported a suspicious person walking down Turtle Creek near Highway 140. A deputy responded and found a disabled vehicle in the area. The deputy gave the vehicle’s driver a ride.
The stranded motorist was likely not the reported suspicious person.
Case goes cold
The eyewitnesses didn’t ever lead to an identity for the body. A car was never found that might have belonged to him. And if a woman had left him, she never reported him missing.
Fourteen years later, the Doe Network called the sheriff’s office in May 2009 and thought the Turtle Creek body might belong to one of three missing persons.
The Doe Network is a volunteer organization that helps law enforcement solve the identity of people in cold cases.
The Doe Network’s missing persons weren’t local, though.
“When I first got the tips from the Doe Network, I didn’t feel too confident,” Yoerger said.
Dental records ruled out a match.
The Turtle Creek body still had its wisdom teeth. Two of the missing persons had their wisdom teeth removed. The third missing person had dental records that didn’t match.
A Michigan man who learned about the case online told investigators in May 2009 that he thought it could be linked to the “smiley face killers.”
The “smiley face killers” theory is that a murderer or group of murderers travel in the Midwest and lure intoxicated college men from bars and drown them in water.
A smiley face graffiti symbol found near the bodies has been connected to some of the cases. Two retired New York City detectives developed the theory. They claim they’ve linked 40 cases in 11 states.
But most of the smiley face deaths have been ruled accidental drowning. No evidence indicates foul play.
The smiley face cases also happened in large cities or college towns. The Turtle Creek body was found in a remote location. Witnesses also reported seeing John Doe alone.
The smiley face lead was never followed.
“I didn’t put much credibility in that,” Yoerger said. “It’s just a theory or hypothesis.”
John Doe’s skull was cremated and his bones were buried in Johnstown Cemetery. A John Doe headstone listing the date the body was found remains in the cemetery.
Investigators dug up the skeleton Dec. 11, 2009, to get a DNA sample off the bones. They hoped they could match the DNA to a missing person or relative.
When they unearthed the body, the casket was deteriorated. Its lid had broken apart and collapsed. A thick, white plastic liner was inside the coffin.
One femur, one vertebra and one rib were sent to the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification.
Investigators didn’t get a hit off the DNA profile. The DNA was entered in a database for a possible match in the future.
The skeleton was then placed in a new coffin and buried at the cemetery.
Detectives will continue reviewing the case every year, Capt. Todd Christiansen said. Any new leads will be followed.
Maybe future technology will help solve the case.
Investigators said John Doe could have drowned or overdosed on drugs.
“But, because of skeletal remains, there is no way to determine that,” Yoerger said.
Investigators said the man was likely from the region, although probably not local.
He must be someone’s son, brother or friend.
“What doesn’t make sense is that nobody has reported him as a missing person that we’re aware of,” Christiansen said.
Investigators still have John Doe’s personal belongings stored at the Rock County Coroner’s Office. They hope to someday return them to his family.
“It would just be nice to find out who he is,” Christiansen said.