On Sept. 14, 1979, two hikers discovered human remains off the steep trails near Multnomah Falls. They found a partial skeleton, eyeglasses, a leather jacket, hiking boots and a baseball cap printed with the letters NT.
Based on the bones and hair found at the scene, investigators determined the body likely belonged to a man, between 20 and 35 years old, with a thick, curly beard. A news brief that ran in The Oregonian noted that the remains “had been exposed to the elements for quite some time.”
Police sent the skull and mandible to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., for an anthropological exam, which concluded (based on skull measurements and the fact that it was found in Oregon) that the person who died was likely African American. The Smithsonian provided a line art drawing of what he may have looked like.
But police had no leads. No one had been reported missing. For decades the bones sat in a box at the Oregon State Police medical examiner’s office in Clackamas.
Based on the year he was found and the numerical filing system of the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office, he became John Doe 79-1862.
There are more than 150 unidentified skeletal remains cases in Oregon, at least one in all 36 counties. But Oregon State Police have a new tool to revisit these cold cases – online genealogy research.
As a growing number of people take home DNA tests to answer questions about their health or ancestry, investigators can use this data to solve decades old mysteries.
Now, 42 years after he was first discovered, John Doe 79-1862 has a name.
When Dr. Nici Vance became the state’s forensic anthropologist in 2004, the science around DNA testing was rapidly improving, and she set out to inventory and re-examine all the remains in her care. In 2007, the Multnomah Falls bones were shipped to a federally funded lab in Texas that was able to extract DNA and upload the information to CODIS, the national Combined DNA Index System maintained by the FBI.
The bones’ DNA was compared to the other profiles in the national system – families of missing persons, convicted offender profiles, samples taken from crime scenes – but never found a match.
In 2013, forensic artist Joyce Nagy with the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office used the skull and mandible to create a more detailed composite drawing of what the man may have looked like. Oregon State Police did a media blitz with the new image but got no leads.
Five years later, a serial killer case changed everything.
The Golden State Killer had committed a string of murders, rapes and burglaries throughout California between 1976 and 1986. In 2018, police arrested Joseph James DeAngelo by comparing DNA left at crime scenes to DNA profiles taken through genealogy websites.
Find the killer’s relatives, and you can find the killer.
In this case, investigators found more than a dozen people who had taken commercial DNA tests and who shared great-great-great-grandparents with the killer. Investigators could then reconstruct a family tree that also served as a field of suspects. Through old-school policing and the process of elimination, they homed in on DeAngelo and confirmed his identity by digging through his trash to get a sample of his DNA.
It was the first big case solved using genetic genealogy. Up to that point, investigators had focused on DNA forensics – comparing, say, blood from a crime scene to a mouth swab of a suspect. Those tests might analyze 20 different genetic markers.
Genetic genealogy is different. These DNA tests analyze some 700,000 different genetic markers that can provide information like someone’s eye color, hair color, ethnicity and skin color.
“Those aren’t things that forensic DNA profiles look for,” Vance said. “There are a lot of brown skinned people in this world, and a forensic DNA profile doesn’t want to know if you have brown skin, it wants to know if you have a genetic mutation at this point on a genetic marker.”
Whereas forensic DNA finds individualizing characteristics – what makes this person different – genetic genealogy finds commonalities.
The first person identified by state police through genetic genealogy was 16-year-old Anne Lehman, whose skeletal remains were found in Josephine County in 1971. A California-based nonprofit volunteer organization, the DNA Doe Project, took on the case in November 2018, and identified her after five months of genetic genealogy research.
Around the same time, in 2018, state police received a $402,000 federal grant to use genetic genealogy on unidentified remains cases. The state hired Virginia-based Parabon NanoLabs to undertake the work, and the John Doe at Multnomah Falls was one of the first cases the company took on.
CeCe Moore, the chief genetic genealogist with Parabon NanoLabs, has had a nontraditional career path.
She majored in theater at the University of Southern California and worked in professional theater and commercials. She’d always had a hobbyist interest in genealogy, and she maintained a popular blog about her research.
Just a week after the Golden State Killer arrest, she was hired by Parabon NanoLabs to head its new genetic genealogy research team.
“I originally developed these techniques about 10 years ago to help adoptees and people of other types of unknown parentage find their biological families,” Moore said.
When someone takes a DNA test through a company like 23andMe, Ancestry or MyHeritage, they receive a report cataloging some 700,000 of their genetic markers. The raw data of that information is just a long list of A,T,C, and Gs – the four nucleotides found in DNA.
A user can download their raw data report and upload it to a public DNA database called GEDMatch, which is able to compare DNA across various companies. Users can opt for their information to be shared with law enforcement.
Across those three most popular companies are some 30 million DNA profiles, but those aren’t available to Parabon’s team.
“Instead, we’re limited to this public database where people have gone through the steps and chosen to upload there, and it’s about 1.4 million people,” Moore said.
Still, the pool is often large enough. Since 2018, Parabon has solved an average of one case a week, Moore said.
“What we are looking for is these long stretches of identical DNA, thousands of genetic markers in a row,” she said. “The only reason people have these identical blocks of DNA is if they share a common ancestor, and hopefully not too far back in their tree.”
Moore and her team are looking for third, fourth, even fifth cousins.
“If we find someone who shares even 1% of their DNA with this unidentified person, that’s a great start for us,” Moore said. “If you share about 1%, you’re approximately third cousins, which means you share a set of your great-great-grandparents.”
Parabon then uses social media and public records of those distant matches to reverse engineer a family tree for the mystery DNA sample.
“People have this misconception that we’re diving deep into the DNA, and we’re not,” Moore said. “We’re looking at genealogical records, census records, marriage records, birth and death records. We’re looking at newspaper archives, obituaries and social media.”
If you start building a family tree with ancestors from the early 1800s, you’ll end up with a list of thousands of descendants today, so cases are never solved with one match. It sometimes takes dozens of distant family members, and months of tedious work, to narrow the search and triangulate an identity.
Moore knew that the John Doe from Multnomah Falls would be a tricky case. For starters, there are fewer African American profiles in the GEDmatch database. And then there is the cruel legacy of slavery, which can make constructing family trees for Black Americans much more difficult, because there are more limited records available before Emancipation.
But in the Multnomah Falls case, Moore found a few promising hits.
She located profiles of people who shared a third great-grandparent (a great-great-great-grandparent) and a second great-grandparent (a great-great-grandparent) with John Doe. Through a combination of social media sleuthing and reaching out to family members who had shown an online interest in genealogy, Moore came up with a likely candidate for John Doe.
Last month, investigators reached out to a woman living in San Fernando, California, for a DNA swab sample, and were able to confirm she was a sibling match to John Doe 79-1862.
His name was Freeman Asher Jr.
Freeman Asher Jr. was born in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, on March 15, 1944, the ninth child in a family of 10 siblings. When he was a child, the family moved to Phoenix, Arizona, where his niece said he eventually dropped out of high school to join the Navy.
“I was a little bitty thing when he joined the Navy, but I remember him very well,” said Christina Asher Jones of Laguna Beach, California. “He was very smart. I know he was really good at math. He was a comedian-type person, and he teased a lot.”
After his military service, her uncle enrolled in school, Jones said. A 1969 yearbook photo shows he was a student at Phoenix College.
In the early 1970s, he worked as a youth supervisor at the Maricopa County Detention Home in Phoenix. Asher had a sister, Jones’ aunt, who lived in Portland, and at some point in the 1970s, he moved to Oregon to be closer to her. Jones has a photo showing Asher in a pink dress shirt and burgundy pants, taken in Portland.
“We kind of lost him after a time being there,” Jones said. “We had no idea where he went or what had become of him. We knew he was there at one point, and then he wasn’t.”
“I think one of the last times I saw him, he was singing ‘Easy’ by Lionel Richie,” Jones said, who would have been a teenager at the time. “Not that he was a singer, he was just always teasing.”
The Commodores released “Easy” in March 1977.
Asher’s remains were discovered at Multnomah Falls a little over two years later.
When one of Asher’s brothers died in 1988, the family tried tracking him down. They had his Social Security number and contacted the Red Cross, which helps families of veterans find missing relatives. They learned Asher hadn’t tried to access any veteran’s benefits, but they didn’t think he was dead.
“The way they made it sound, it was like he had to give his permission to be contacted, so we just thought he didn’t want to be contacted,” Jones said. “It’s one of those things where you feel the person doesn’t want to be bothered, so you don’t bother.”
Jones said her uncle never married and never had children.
She had no idea what the “NT” may have stood for on his hat, nor why he might have been at Multnomah Falls.
“When they said they found him on a trail, I’m going, trail? It didn’t seem like him, but who knows,” she said.
Asher would have been around 34 years old when he died.
“It was good for closure, but it was also very painful, because he died out there in the elements,” Jones said. “It’s just really sad, and he was young. My grandmother, God rest her soul, wondered what happened to him. Then I couldn’t sleep at night when I first knew. It’s kind of like it just happened.”
So far, Parabon has processed 10 samples from Oregon State Police, leading to identification of six remains. The first was Wanda Herr, a 19-year-old whose skull was found on Mount Hood in 1986, and whose remains were identified in October.
Parabon is currently working on the oldest unidentified remains case in the state – a toddler’s bones found in Jackson County in 1963.
“That one is in process,” Vance said. “We believe we may be able to solve that one in the next few months.”
Oregon State Police are using the same techniques with Parabon on the case of a young girl whose body was discovered in December near a rural parking area in Lincoln County.
With the grant money, Vance expects to be working regularly with Parabon over the next three years.
“Parabon really changed the way we looked at these cases,” Vance said. “For example, I’ve got a skeletonized foot in a boot that was found in Southern Oregon. I don’t have a skull or a mandible, so I can’t take that to my forensic artist. But I give that DNA sample to Parabon, and they can determine that person’s gender, eye color, hair color, skin color. That gives us just a wealth of information that we would never have been able to get just by looking at the foot bones.”
While genetic genealogy can answer the question of identification, it can’t completely solve cold cases. Investigators still don’t know the cause of death for Wanda Herr, Anne Lehman or Freeman Asher Jr.
“If the wounds that lead to a person’s death don’t have anything to do with the skeleton, there is no way for me to give our pathologist an indication of cause or manner of death,” Vance said.
Still, it provides a key answer for families of missing persons.
“It’s a terrible resolution,” Vance said, “but can you imagine never knowing?”
Moore, too, is driven by the chance to reunite lost family members.
“It used to be more in life and now it’s more in death, but it’s the exact same thing to me,” Moore said. “People need resolution. I don’t think you can have closure in these types of situations, but I do think having answers and resolution is extremely important for people.”
With the case closed – there was no evidence of a crime – Asher’s remains will be turned over to a funeral home of the family’s choosing. Jones said her aunt in Portland has died, but her cousins in Oregon will coordinate arrangements.
“To me this is providing him with even more dignity, giving him his first and last name back,” Vance said. “I’m just relieved that we can resolve this. That if there were family members that were wondering where he was, they don’t have to wonder anymore.”