Sheriff’s Office renews effort to identify 1989 John Doe

August 26, 2018
Bow Doe

Skagit County sheriff’s Detective Kay Walker (left) and Bow resident Tony Breckenridge stand Tuesday in the Bow Cemetery near the grave of a John Doe who was found in 1989.

BOW — At the south end of Bow Cemetery, underneath a Western red cedar tree, lies a simple grave marker.

On a recent afternoon, a single cedar bough graced the top of the marker — almost too perfectly positioned for it to have been left there by nature.

“It’s funny,” said Bow resident Tony Breckenridge, who visits the grave about four times a year. “Every time I come here, someone’s placed something here.”

The identity of the man buried under the grave marker remains a mystery; the stone simply reads “John Doe.”

Breckenridge remembers being the Skagit County Sheriff’s deputy leading a search and rescue crew sent into the Oyster Creek area off Chuckanut Drive where the man had been found Feb. 21, 1989.

“There’s so many unanswered questions,” Breckenridge said. “The important thing is, that’s a son to someone.”

Now, nearly 30 years after the man’s body was discovered in the remote location, the Skagit County Sheriff’s Office — prompted by advances in technology — is renewing its efforts to identify the man.

“The reality is some cases never leave us,” said Skagit County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Jennifer Sheahan-Lee.


Whoever the man was, wherever he came from, one thing appears to be certain: he didn’t want to be found.

A logger surveying in the area stumbled upon the remains of the man near the Whatcom/Skagit county border. There was no identification, no note and nothing to help investigators determine the man’s identity.

According to a Skagit Valley Herald article written at the time, the man was found hanging from a tree by his neck, with his knees just inches off the ground.

His last sight would have been of the water.

“It was very picturesque,” Breckenridge said. “If he hadn’t been on the survey line, he might still not be found to this day.”

The body was estimated to have been at that location for at least a year, according to the Skagit Valley Herald article.

Much of the man’s body was intact and was basically mummified, Breckenridge said, leading him to believe the man had hanged himself during cold weather.

Because of the condition of the body, officials were unable to obtain fingerprints, Breckenridge said.

Dental records were obtained and run through a statewide system, but returned no match, according to the newspaper article.

According to reports, the man was white, between 20 and 30 years old, with brown hair and between 5-foot-4 and 5-foot-6. He was wearing a blue and white plaid shirt, a blue and white windbreaker, Levi jeans and white tennis shoes.

A pack of cigarettes was found nearby and a comb was found in the man’s pocket, said Detective Kay Walker with the Skagit County Sheriff’s Office, who is now assigned to the case as part of the Sheriff’s Office’s investigative unit.

DNA technology was fairly new at the time, and no missing persons reports were filed that matched the man’s description, Walker said.

In 2015, the man was entered into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, based out of the University of North Texas, but the system has returned no matches, she said.

On Sept. 6, 1989, in a low-key ceremony, John Doe, now known to many as “Bow Doe,” was buried in a casket with a grey flannel cloth and silk flowers resting on top, the Skagit Valley Herald reported.

His burial cost taxpayers a little more than $1,000, according to the Skagit Valley Herald.

Because there were no mourners, the gravediggers were asked to serve as witnesses.

Breckenridge said the loneliness of the man’s death is part of what sticks with him.

“No one wants to be left on Earth with no one knowing who they were,” he said.


In death, “Bow Doe” has found a home among the small group of community members who are spearheading the movement to identify him.

“He’s had a quasi-substitute family,” Sheahan-Lee said.

In May, on the heels of the Sheriff’s Office catching a break in a nearly 30-year-old double homicide by using new DNA technology, Breckenridge approached the department and asked that it take another look at the Bow Doe case, she said.

Walker, who had previously tried unsuccessfully to get DNA off the items found at the scene, didn’t know the answers she sought were resting in the shade of a cedar tree in Bow.

“I didn’t know he was buried here,” she said.

Now, the Sheriff’s Office is hoping to exhume the man’s body in the hope of using new technology to find out who he was.

“We’re really just hoping to be able to make this help us find his family,” Sheahan-Lee said.

The exhumation will cost $1,600, she said.

A GoFundMe account set up by community members has raised about $500.

Once the body is exhumed, the King County Medical Examiner’s Office, which has a forensic anthropologist and odontologist on staff, has agreed to take possession of the body and re-evaluate it, Walker said.

From there, the office hopes to be able to use the man’s skull to make a visual reconstruction of what he may have looked like, which may jog the memories of those who knew him at the time.

“Hopefully that will give us at least a visual,” Walker said.

If the facial reconstruction yields no leads, Walker said the Sheriff’s Office may explore other options, likely involving DNA.

“What our goal is is to really get the word out,” Sheahan-Lee said.

While the case is not a criminal matter, the Sheriff’s Office would like to bring closure, Sheahan-Lee said.

“This feels very good to us,” she said. “We don’t always get to work with the community on feel-good conclusions.”

Anyone with information about the man’s identity is asked to call the Sheriff’s Office’s tipline at 1-510-775-2448.

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