Authorities revamp efforts to identify Summit County John Doe in 2016 cold case

A sculpture shows what a man might have looked like at the time of his death. His skull was found near Peak 6 in July 2016, and investigators believe the man died by suicide.
Jack Queen / |

FRISCO — Scientists and researchers are working to identify the body of a man found in the backcountry near Breckenridge in 2016.

Officials are hopeful that new efforts in the still-developing field of forensic genetic genealogy could be the key to identifying the individual, a process composed of advanced DNA analysis paired with detailed investigations of publicly available genealogical databases.

Spearheading the effort is the DNA Doe Project, a recently founded California nonprofit specializing in cold case identifications of John and Jane Does. The project made headlines just last week after identifying a man found dead in Park County almost 50 years ago, but the group is also investigating a more local case. And researchers say it’s a challenge.

“He’s a tough one,” said Missy Koski, team leader with the DNA Doe Project. “I think eventually we will be able to get somewhere. But we definitely need some closer matches or some breakthrough in putting together some family trees. He’s giving us a run for our money.”

On July 10, 2016, hikers discovered a human skull in the backcountry between Breckenridge Ski Resort and Copper Mountain Resort in an area known as the Sky Chutes. Officials determined the skull belonged to a white man with blonde hair who was between 5-feet, 5 inches and 6-feet, 3 inches tall and likely in the range of 30-50 years old. A forensic pathologist report concluded that damage to the skull was consistent with a self-inflicted gunshot wound from a Glock .45 found near his remains.

A subsequent search of the area by local sheriff’s deputies turned up other belongings, including a high-tech headlamp and foot traction devices, along with two water bottles made in 2012, when officials believe the man killed himself. But there was otherwise nothing that could identify the man.

After the discovery, the Summit County Coroner’s Office sent his remains to the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification, but no leads were developed. Officials turned to community members for help a year later, when a forensic reconstruction artist created a model of what the man might have looked like in hopes someone would recognized him.

But with little return, officials decided to look elsewhere. In comes the DNA Doe Project. Since it’s founding in 2017, the project has been able to help law enforcement agencies successfully name more than 30 unidentified people. The group’s work with the Summit County cold case began in May 2019.

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Building a DNA profile

The first step is to obtain DNA.

The DNA Doe Project reached out to the University of Northern Texas Center for Human Identification, which was able to provide a small sample from the man’s remains. More samples also were taken from some of John Doe’s teeth.

The samples were sent to the International Commission on Missing Persons lab in the Netherlands, where scientists were able to extract usable DNA. That DNA was then sent to the HudsonAlpha lab in Huntsville, Alabama, for DNA sequencing.

Simply put, the DNA sequencing process includes breaking down the DNA into smaller segments, which can be run through sequencers to decode all of an individual’s base pairs of DNA. From there, lab computers go to work placing the segments in their correct positions along the human genome and searching for variations.

Kevin Lord, principal investigator with Saber Investigations and DNA Doe Project lab liaison, said the technicians are essentially trying to map (single nucleotide polymorphisms), mutations in the base pairs of DNA that get passed down from generation to generation.

“You have two copies of each chromosome: one from your mom and one from your dad,” Lord said. “And at each location along your genome, you have two values, as does everyone else. … When we upload the file, it shows the values that the unknown person has at each position and compares it to all of the other people who have uploaded their DNA.

“If there are enough positions in a row that match, it means those two people share a segment of DNA with each other. That indicates, as long as it’s a long enough segment, that those two people probably share a common ancestor somewhere in the past.”

The data returned from sequencing is raw, with tens of gigabytes worth of information that need to undergo a final bioinformatics process, essentially computer software that helps boil it down to a more manageable size where it can start going to work looking for matches.

“… It’s basically a spreadsheet that shows that at this chromosome, these are the person’s values.” Lord said. “Once we have that, we can upload that to the genealogy database.”

From cutting edge to ancient history

The DNA Doe Project uses public DNA databases like GEDMatch and FamilyTreeDNA to look for possible ancestors for unidentified individuals, what has become a useful tool in widening the search beyond more traditional law enforcement databases.

Programs like the Combined DNA Index Systems — or CODIS, the FBI’s criminal justice DNA database — have historically used direct comparison through short tandem repeat analysis. Lord said the tests look at about 20 locations along the genome and are really only useful in determining whether someone is a direct relative, like a parent or sibling. In other words, CODIS and similar databases need very close matches to turn up any results.

But the data collected on GEDMatch and FamilyTreeDNA comes from more comprehensive testing that individuals have uploaded from consumer companies like Ancestry and 23andMe. By uploading the John Doe’s DNA sequence into such a database, the scope of possible matches increases from parents and siblings to fifth cousins and great grandparents.

“Instead of the 20 different locations that the standard tests look at, you get the (single nucleotide polymorphisms) values for hundreds of thousands of locations on the genome,” Lord said. “That much more granular testing gives you more data to resolve different types of relationships and see that people share ancestors much further back than the testing that is commonly used now in the forensics field.”

That doesn’t always mean there are strong links to work from, and it relies entirely on what other DNA has been uploaded to the database. For Summit’s John Doe, there’s not a lot to go on — for now.

Based on results, Koski said, the man might have been a recent immigrant and of Scandinavian descent, both of which create problems. Researchers have identified a few potential matches, but they’re too distant to make an easy ancestral connection.

“In that gene pool, as far as looking at databases here in the United States, it can be difficult to draw from,” Koski said. “We have probably fourth cousin matches. But let’s say we can get their ancestors built a couple generations back, when we get to the turn of the century, when a lot of families immigrated here, a lot of the names will change. If they were keeping the naming patterns from Norway and Sweden and other Scandinavian countries, it’s very difficult to follow.

“If you have a name like Johnson, that’s literally John’s son and his daughter is John’s daughter. And the next generation down doesn’t follow that same convention. So John’s son becomes something else, he’s Johnson and his child would be something like Sven Johnson. Now his son would be Svenson. It’s very hard to find connections.”

Typically, researchers will try to find two individuals who have a strong match with the John Doe to help triangulate his lineage and will often reach out to possible matches to see if they’re able to walk researchers through their own ancestry or if they’d be willing to take a DNA test. The DNA Doe Project typically will approach potential matches only if they believe they’re somewhat removed, preferring to leave close relatives to law enforcement. Second cousins are typically an ideal starting place for building a family tree because they will share great-grandparents with the unidentified individual, according to Koski.

When there aren’t any close matches, like with John Doe Summit County, the hope is that new relatives will eventually upload their DNA kits to one of the databases and offer a breakthrough. But both Koski and Lord said DNA databases have suffered over recent years as commercial testing companies reckon with privacy concerns among customers. GedMatch and FamilyTreeDNA now require participants to opt-in to law enforcement searches, including accounts like the DNA Doe Project. Other sites like Ancestry and 23andMe won’t voluntarily cooperate with police, even to help identify human remains.

Koski said anyone who has taken a commercial DNA test should consider opting in to one of the databases to help researchers like her trying to identify Jane and John Does.

“We lost at least 75% of the matches we would have normally had,” Koski said. “Little by little, as time has gone by, people have realized it’s OK and they’re not so fearful of it. Or they want to help, so they’ve gone back and opted in. … But we just don’t get the close matches like we used to. More often than not, once we get the case uploaded, it can be slow going.”

But the DNA Doe Project’s research volunteers don’t sit idly by waiting for someone new to opt-in. In the meantime, the researchers are still hard at work pouring over old public records, newspaper articles, obituaries and more to try to build family trees.

“You’re looking for people. You’re putting together families and trying to find children and grandchildren,” Koski said. “We don’t give up. There might be a couple cases we’ve had that are on the back burner, but we still look at them frequently hoping someone new shows up. And the Summit County case isn’t in that bad category. It’s just going to take some work.”

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