Lake Stickney John Doe

Last seen in 1987, Rodney Johnson was a homicide victim, identified decades later from only twenty cell's worth of DNA.

In Everett, WA during the summer of 1994, a fisherman discovered the remains of a young man in the lake. The Snohomish County Medical Examiner's office determined that the man was likely between 25 and 35 years old at the time of his death, and the death was ruled a homicide. Over the years there have many multiple attempts at an ancestry assessment and facial reconstruction for the victim. Various artistic renditions were shared with the public, in hopes that someone would recognize the victim and come forward with information.

How can there be different facial reconstructions for the same person? Its actually not uncommon. Many of the unidentified person cases in NamUs have little evidence beyond a skull or sparse skeletal remains. Investigators and anthropologists collaborate to make the best educated guess possible, but its a guess nonetheless. Sometimes there will be conflicting assessments and sometimes it is not even possible to make an educated guess. Complete assessment of human ancestry requires DNA testing. Biogeographical ancestry analysis (BGA), as some call it, leverages genetic testing to infer a person’s background. This is something I explore in another post titled “Estimating Human Ancestry”.

After the young man was found in 1994, he spent the next couple decades at the Snohomish County Medical Examiner's office waiting for his identity to be restored. In 2020, Detective Scharf and Investigator Jorgensen reached out to my company, Othram. I have written before about how Othram accesses genetic information from evidence that has failed other methods — evidence that has been deemed “unsuitable for analysis”. Our methods outperform especially in older cases and I recently recounted how we helped NCMEC solve their oldest announced case. In this case, we had lots of factors working against us. Despite having less than a fifth of a nanogram (less than 20 cell’s worth) of badly degraded and heavily contaminated human DNA to work with – a scenario currently inaccessible by other forensic labs - Othram’s scientists used Forensic-Grade Genome Sequencing® and a combination of proprietary enrichment methods and sequencing protocols to reconstruct a genealogical profile for the young man found in Lake Stickney. Less than a fifth of a nanogram? How small is that? I was asked to explain this at the press conference.

After uploading the genealogical profile built by Othram, to a public genealogical database, a match was identified. Othram’s internal laboratory team worked with investigators to establish an identity. Usually, one match is not enough to point to a single person. However, this match had included another clue in their public database profile. They belonged to a distinctive direct maternal lineage. The high-resolution profile developed by Othram allowed investigators to perfectly match up this uncommon maternal lineage signature. The investigators then found a record for a missing person that appeared to match Mr. Johnson. Interestingly, although the missing person was reported in 1996, it turns out that Mr. Johnson had last been seen in the late 80s. He was about 25 years old at the time. When he disappeared, he was living with a cousin and working at a restaurant in Ballard. Sometime in late 1987 or 1988, he reportedly went camping and never returned home after his trip. So it is likely that he remained in the lake for as many as seven years before being discovered.

Investigators reached out to next-of-kin and used standard forensic DNA testing to confirm Rodney’s identity. The homicide investigation continues, but Detective Scharf tells me that they have pretty good leads in that investigation. Its a reminder that restoring the identity of a homicide victim is the first step in being able to investigate the crime and seek justice for the victim.

If you want to learn more about the case of Rodney Johnson, here are some great links:

  • A detailed story on the anthropology work, published months before investigators cracked the case using Othram’s genetic testing platform.

  • Local coverage about Rodney’s identity when the case was first announced. 

  • Othram maintains a profile on this case at DNASolves.com.