A John Doe who died in 2012 and was found in 2016 on the Tenmile Range has, at last, been identified

A clay model of then-John Doe Jeffery Peterson was sculpted by forensic artist Beth Buchholtz.
Luke Vidic/Summit Daily News

A hiker trekking up a game trail in a chute along the western face of the Tenmile Range stumbled across a human skull on the forest floor. That was in 2016.

Monday, Sept. 12, the Summit County Coroner’s Office announced the positive identification of the remains as Jeffery Peterson, of Virginia. According to the Coroner’s Office, Peterson had been dead for four years when his remains were found. He died in 2012 of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head at the age of 53.

It was about 10 years before his family could be notified of his death, due in part to difficulties identifying the body.

When the skeletal remains were found at the base of the “Y” section of the Sky Chutes, just below the treeline, no identifying information was available. His backpack was empty and a handgun beside the body had had its serial number scratched off. There were no car keys, no wallet or driver’s license, and no reports made around the time of death of abandoned cars or snowmobiles.

“The decedent went to great lengths to obscure his identity,” Kipple said at a press conference Monday morning.

With no identifying information available, officials from the Coroner’s Office began an exhaustive, years-long process to learn the identity of the individual.

“I could not give up. I knew this man probably had family and friends that had spent the same amount of time wondering what had happened to their loved one. That was my motivation — I refused to give up on finding answers,” Deputy Coroner Wendy Kipple.

The skeletal remains were sent to researchers at the University of North Texas Human Identification Lab for analysis, after which the information was entered into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons database. A clay facial model was also built by a forensic artist.

Kipple said her office chased down many leads, including the search for a French fugitive of justice which required the help of Interpol. Four potential names were traced down at the outset, but all were eliminated through dental and DNA records. A press conference in 2017 brought about a dozen more leads to Kipple’s attention, she said, but none turned out to be the John Doe.

But then, on Feb. 25, the coroner’s office received a call from the DNA Doe Project, a nonprofit that works to identify unknown persons, with news to break the case open.

The DNA Doe Project first got on the case in May of 2019, DNA Doe Project volunteer forensic genetic genealogist Missy Koski said. It sent DNA from the body to labs around the globe. Teeth from the skull were sent to the International Commission for Missing Persons in the Netherlands. DNA was then sent to HudsonAlpha in Alabama for sequencing, and from there the DNA was sent to Saber Investigations in Texas for bioinformatics. By May of 2020, the DNA Doe Project at last had the information and approval it needed to begin its research, culminating in a family tree that identified the father as Scandinavian and the mother as Slavic. The project also settled on one gene-matched third cousin. Research yielded a proposed candidate.

“They gave me a possible name of the decedent and their family,” Kipple said.

A graphic shows the family tree used to identify Jeffery Peterson as the John Doe. The DNA Doe Project used gene-matching to identify Peterson’s third cousin as well as the ancestry of his parents.
Luke Vidic/Summit Daily News

Upon contacting the possible family members, Kipple arranged for a DNA sample from a brother of the deceased, which helped positively identify the remains as Peterson.

During Kipple’s conversation with Peterson’s family, Kipple learned that Peterson was frustrated and disappointed after the 2008 financial crisis, during which he lost a great deal of wealth. The family had not heard from him since his announcement he was moving to Belize ‘never to be heard from again’, according to Kipple. Peterson sold all his belongings and never contacted his family after departing.

Kipple spoke with Mr. Peterson’s family at length. She said Peterson graduated from Virginia Tech with a degree in Industrial Engineering and Operations Research. He was on the executive leadership team at Management Systems Laboratories at Virginia Tech for many years and, according to his family, was a pioneer in the development of e-commerce software.

“Jeff was from Virginia but loved the mountains of Colorado and would drive his RV to Summit County and spend time here hiking and skiing,” said Kipple. “The place Jeff chose to take his life was on the back side of Breckenridge Ski Area that looked out across to Copper Mountain Ski Area, two of his favorite ski areas.”

Reading from a letter sent by Peterson’s ex-wife, Mary McRoberts, Summit County Coroner Regan Wood said, “When I first received the call from Wendy, I could not believe it, that we had not heard from Jeff since May 2012. That was the plan — he was to start a new life elsewhere. He was, in a way, a loner and extremely independent. … He was kind, adventurous, extremely generous and fun and loved everyone he met, but he was troubled from a challenging childhood of which he shared with few. … He was a guy I called when I needed a shoulder to cry on, and he was always there for me.”

The coroner’s office said Peterson’s body will be cremated and returned to family in either Virginia or Texas.

If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts or is in crisis, help is available. Call or text 988 or chat

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