Crime

Murdered Phoenix Man Identified After Nearly 40 Years — But Hundreds More are Waiting

A display case at the Maricopa County Medical Examiner's Office
A display case at the Maricopa County Medical Examiner's Office Sean Holstege
After 38 years of doggedness and sleuthing, investigators have identified a homeless man murdered in South Phoenix.

But there are hundreds more people who died without anyone knowing their real names because they were homeless too.

People in their neighborhoods may know snippets about them – first names, nicknames, habits, likes, and dislikes. But when they die, it is as if they disappeared without a trace.

Baseline John

click to enlarge The 1983 Baseline John Doe, depicted in a police sketch here, was identified on November 5, 2021. - DNA DOE PROJECT
The 1983 Baseline John Doe, depicted in a police sketch here, was identified on November 5, 2021.
DNA Doe Project

On September 11, 1983, the murder victim was found in a field near Baseline Road and South Central Avenue. He was bludgeoned to death. 


The victim was likely 50 years old when he was killed in a drunken altercation, based on matching details reported in the FBI's Supplemental Homicide Report.


The Phoenix Police Department, teaming up with the Maricopa County Medical Examiner’s Office and the California-based nonprofit DNA Doe Project, identified the victim last month.

Loved ones had been searching for answers for decades.


“This man had a family who missed him,” said Cairenn Binder, the genealogist who led the DNA Doe Project team that closed the timeworn case. “He was a clever man who had experienced mental illness and misfortune in his life.”

Family members asked police to withhold his name, out of respect for their privacy.


The Unidentified Persons Bureau in the Medical Examiner's Office has identified 362 nameless individuals who died since 1970.

“When we are born, the first thing we receive is a name, and that should be the one thing we get to keep when we die.”

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Most recently, case investigators hope to crack another John Doe murder from late August. That's when another 50-year-old man was found in the garage of a local business. He was severely underweight, toothless, and also homeless.

“When we are born, the first thing we receive is a name, and that should be the one thing we get to keep when we die,” said Stuart Somershoe, a cold case detective with Phoenix Police Department. “Everyone is someone’s child and has family, no matter what path their life has followed. I feel that we’ve become almost caretakers for these lost souls until they can be returned to their family.”


Even when a victim is faceless, it doesn't always halt detectives.

In the 1983 Baseline John Doe murder, police arrested a suspect, who pled guilty to the slaying. He served a term in the Arizona Department of Corrections and has since been released. Police declined to name Doe's killer.


“Not knowing who the victim is can be an obstacle, but in this case, the suspect was identified and arrested within a day or so of the homicide,” Somershoe said.


Medical examiners exhumed the victim’s body in 2011 to help move the case forward.

click to enlarge Maricopa County Medical Examiner's Office - SEAN HOLSTEGE
Maricopa County Medical Examiner's Office
Sean Holstege
Medical Death Investigator Christen Eggers, who worked this case since then, said that decades-old cases are particularly difficult. But there's hope with access to new technology and techniques to bring the truth to light.

The county solves "a few" cases like this one each year. But most cases remain active.


Another man who was also murdered in 1983 in North Phoenix remains unidentified.


“Every cold case identification gives me hope for all other unidentified cases,” Eggers said.

Baseline John Doe wouldn't be the last homeless man killed in cold blood on Baseline Road. Between 2005 and 2006, Dale Hausner and Samuel Dieteman committed a number of drive-by shootings in the same neighborhood, often targeting the homeless.

While under the influence of methamphetamine, the duo murdered five people in cold blood and shot at 38 other pedestrians, cyclists, and animals in South Phoenix.


Nearly 2,000 bodies remain unidentified in Arizona today. Nationwide, it’s an estimated 40,000 people. Somershoe calls this “the nation’s silent mass disaster,” however, he concurs that hope today is more abundant than in years past.


“I think we are on the threshold of solving many other similar cases,” the detective said. “It is my hope that, with forensic genealogy, we can resolve many.”

click to enlarge Maricopa County forensic pathologists are trying to name 362 people who died since 1970. - SEAN HOLSTEGE
Maricopa County forensic pathologists are trying to name 362 people who died since 1970.
Sean Holstege

DNA Doe Project, an all-donor, all-volunteer nonprofit, has identified nearly 70 John and Jane Does since its inception in 2017. About one-fifth of those are pending identification, while the others are confirmed and solved.


“Forensic genealogy is the new frontier in these investigations and has cracked cases that were not moving forward,” Somershoe said.


More than 8 percent of DNA Doe Project’s cases are in the Phoenix metro area despite its work spanning nationwide. Of the local cases, 80 percent are in the City of Phoenix.


“We have many cases in the Phoenix area due to the admirable tenacity of the detectives working on their cases,” said Binder. “Stuart Somershoe has been particularly determined to get these cases solved, and has referred many cases to DNA Doe Project.”


Somershoe oversees three other cases in Phoenix in which he’s employed the help of DNA Doe Project.

He’s on the cusp of solving one.

click to enlarge Monique could have been anywhere from 20 to 50 years old. - DNA DOE PROJECT
Monique could have been anywhere from 20 to 50 years old.
DNA Doe Project

Monique

Monique was also homeless when her partially-burned body was discovered inside a blue Honda Accord near North 24th and East Monroe Streets in early February 1997.


“Monique Jane Doe holds a special place in my heart because it was the first dead body I responded to as a young patrol officer,” Somershoe recalled.


Through genealogical research, it was determined Monique’s family is African-American and from Mississippi.


“I have high hopes that her case is solvable once we find the right connections in her family tree,” Binder said.

Box Mike

Another homeless John Doe has only a flickering hope of closure. He was a longtime Phoenix resident known by many as Box Mike.


On July 11, 1998, Mike was struck by a car at 35th and Peoria Avenues. He was transported to the hospital and later died of his injuries.
click to enlarge Box Mike had gray hair, a beard and mustache, and blue eyes. - DNA DOE PROJECT
Box Mike had gray hair, a beard and mustache, and blue eyes.
DNA Doe Project

“Box Mike is a very difficult case,” said Binder, who believes Mike was Eastern European.


It’s likely both of his parents emigrated from a country torn by communism that would have lost or destroyed many family records. Box Mike hasn’t yielded many matches in GEDmatch, Family Tree DNA, or the other databases used by forensic genealogists.


Mike was buried at the White Tanks Cemetery in Goodyear after authorities ruled the chances of being identified unlikely. He was known by many, but none beyond his nickname.

Broadway Jane

On November 21, 2004, a woman was found in the roadway at 15th Street and Broadway Road, minutes after being struck and killed by a car that fled the scene.


The woman, who was in her 40s when she died, has excellent DNA matches, but comes from a place where there is a lot of endogamy – her DNA matches are all related to each other in more than one way.


“It's very difficult to determine where she fits into the family tree,” Binder said.

click to enlarge Despite the fact that Broadway Jane Doe's face was recognizable when she was killed, she remains unidentified. - DNA DOE PROJECT
Despite the fact that Broadway Jane Doe's face was recognizable when she was killed, she remains unidentified.
DNA Doe Project


Jane’s parents were from Calvillo, in central Mexico, an area investigators targeted in 2020 to try to jog locals’ memories.


“We just need the right set of eyes to see her composite and come forward,” Somershoe said.

Curse of anonymity

Maricopa County officials bury on average between five to ten homeless individuals who died and whom no family member claims. Sometimes officials know their names, sometimes they don't.

It's common that homeless individuals won't share personal information with strangers and it takes time to earn their trust, said Mike Atanasio, founder of Phoenix nonprofit Arizona Friends of Homeless.


“Many do not have or carry ID cards and go by nicknames, street names, [or] initials,” Atanasio said. “Some may have warrants or fines outstanding. They aren't going to give personal identification.”


He says identifying the homeless in Phoenix in a database while they’re alive is unlikely.

“Not gonna happen,” Atanasio said.

Groups elsewhere like the Northwest Arkansas Continuum of Care and Hark at the Endeavor Foundation, also based in Arkansas, meticulously survey and document the homeless on a routine basis. Atanasio doesn't see it happening in Phoenix, though.


“Homeless are mobile,” he said. “Many stay put in one general area, but just as many move around for whatever reason.”


A lot of people fall in and out of homelessness on any given day or night. Many couch surf with friends or family. Many are severely mentally ill, often including paranoia, Atanasio said.

click to enlarge The case files of unidentified homicide victims stack up at the Maricopa County Medical Examiner's Office. - SEAN HOLSTEGE
The case files of unidentified homicide victims stack up at the Maricopa County Medical Examiner's Office.
Sean Holstege
“Often, homeless are hiding. They don't want to be found,” he said. “Families search high and low, and if someone doesn't want to be identified, he can easily become lost in the street. There are many ways to report on homeless issues, but I don't think this is one that would work.”

Between providing services, shelters, and programs to the homeless in metro Phoenix, Atanasio still compiles the monthly deaths of homeless people in Maricopa County and posts them on the nonprofit’s Facebook page.

“Every person deserves their name,” said Binder of DNA Doe Project. “In every single case I have worked, whether the person was reported missing or not, there was someone who was looking for them, and someone who loved them and missed them. Many transient people have lost touch with their families, but that does not mean they are not missed.”
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Elias Weiss is a staff writer at the Phoenix New Times. A native of Charlotte, North Carolina, he reported first for the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and was editor of the Chatham Star-Tribune in Southern Virginia, where he covered politics and law. In 2020, the Virginia Press Association awarded him first place in the categories of Government Writing and Breaking News Writing for non-daily newspapers statewide.
Contact: Elias Weiss