EVERETT, Wash. - Inside the unassuming walls of the Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office sits a room full of cardboard boxes. Inside those cardboard boxes are human bones. Some of those bones belong to five men whose names have been lost to time– for now.
"In 2018, we had 15 unidentified persons here, and today we only have five remaining," explains Nicole Daugherty, the operations manager for the ME's office. "It’s been four years and we’ve identified 10 people. So I’m really confident we’ll clear the docket here soon."
Daugherty works directly with families who have lost a loved one in Snohomish County. She says the job is hard, but rewarding.
"I wake up every day excited to come into work. I didn’t think I’d ever find a job this satisfying. I didn’t know a job could be this satisfying," she said.
Daugherty is driven by a fierce sense of empathy while handling the bureaucratic side of death. The hard days may mean handling the death of a child, or the victim of a suicide. These days come hand-in-hand with difficult conversations: those of reassurance, of support, and of relieving guilt.
"Little things like that, that seem insignificant to us when we’re having a normal day, can mean the world to people when they lose a loved one," she said.
Daugherty is one vital piece of a well-oiled machine. She works alongside forensic pathologists and death investigators dedicated to solving some of the county’s oldest mysteries: unidentified missing persons.
Right now, five men remain unidentified in Snohomish County. They have been classified as a "John Doe" for decades, all waiting for one thing: the perfect DNA match.
"It’s incredibly helpful because our first line in attempting to identify someone is usually fingerprints, then dental," explains Daugherty. "But if we have a missing person and we don’t know who they are, what dentals are we going to compare it to?"
Such is the case with the man known as "I-5 Stilly Doe." He was found by a fly fisherman on July 23, 1988 in the Stillaguamish River, about half a mile from Interstate 5.
For 42 years, his identity has remained a mystery.
In an autopsy, it was revealed that I-5 Stilly Doe was likely around 60 years old, and suffering from coronary heart disease.
But, this isn’t what killed him. In fact, his cause of death is still unknown, as investigators believe he was in the water for around three months before he was found, significantly affecting his remains.
The only other clues were in his clothing: oxford shoes, a red flannel, and a leather belt with the letters G-R-N on the buckle, possibly his initials. No missing persons report has ever matched his description.
Right now, Jane Jorgensen, one of the department’s medical investigators, is hard at work building Stilly Doe’s family tree. The closest match is a distant relative, not enough to give the team a solid lead. Jorgensen is certified by the American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators.
"Our current match on I-5 Stilly Joe is a cousin," explains Daugherty. "If, say, a sibling or aunt, uncle, a closer family member uploaded today, tomorrow, that could be key to solving it in days from now, as opposed to what could take years."
With the right match, a case could be solved in a matter of hours. And that’s where the public comes in.
The Snohomish County ME’s office is partnered with Othram, a genomics company with a reputation for helping to solve cases with donated DNA that other labs have deemed unsolvable. A prime example was seen in Snohomish County in 2020, identifying the Lake Stickney John Doe, now known as Rodney Peter Johnson.
"They’ve also been able to find samples on samples that other labs have told us, ‘don’t even try, it’s not worth it, you’re not going to get anything out of this,’" says Daugherty, "And then Othram will do it."
Since the late 1990’s, private DNA and genealogy sites have exploded in popularity, such as 23AndMe and Ancestry.com. Now, forensic investigators are hoping that interest will help solve more cold cases.
Any DNA genome stored online is protected by that private site, but the user has the chance to make it eligible for use by law enforcement. That process happens through GedMatch.com. The free, online tool allows anyone to enter their DNA, then "opt-in," sending their information to a database used by investigators nationwide.
The experts at the Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office say it’s a process everyone should consider doing, even if you don’t know of anyone in your immediate family currently missing.
"It could potentially be your 12th cousin or something," explains Daugherty. "That may be the key that we need to help narrow down who that person is."
Unfortunately, there is a financial barrier in place for these vital steps in the DNA donation process. Using GedMatch.com is free, but that first step, using private sites, can cost anywhere from $99.99 to $199.99 just to donate DNA and get genomes online.
Daugherty says she hopes to one day see more equal opportunity in this area, and a more diverse batch of samples to be working from. Currently, Caucasians are over-represented, and nearly every other ethnicity is under-represented in the genome databases.
Another obstacle in the identification process is the lack of missing person reports.
For the five unidentified men sitting in the Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office, there are no reports, no dental records, no clues except from what’s left behind in their DNA.
According to Daugherty, this problem is not uncommon. Sometimes, a report is never filed. In other cases, the reports themselves go missing.
"There have been cases where it’s been 20 to 30 years since this person was reported missing, and staff changes, policies change, and maybe that person is no longer listed as missing for one reason or another," she said.
Daugherty says if you have filed a report for someone you believe is missing, call the police department every year to make sure it is still active. Another tip she shared is to make sure the photos used in the report show the person smiling.
"In the end, it’s going to make less work for everybody," explains Daugherty. "Because these cases that we could have matched in a day, simply because they didn’t have a registered missing persons report, it could take years."
For her, these tips are every day, but for those she’s helping, they may come on the worst day of their life. For Daugherty, being there to help make any part of the process easier, to be a reassurance, isn’t a chore, it’s an opportunity:
"Even just letting them know we’re still working on it, that their person’s not forgotten, even if we don’t end up finding them, but we are trying, just giving them that hope."
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The Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office and the Snohomish County Sheriffs office are raising funds to send I-5 Stilly Joe’s DNA sample to Othram, to help narrow down a closer relative. You can donate to that cause here.
If you have any information that may help with the investigation into his identify, please call the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office tip line at (425) 388-3845. The case number is #UP17865.