Some stories have happy endings, some end sadly, and some never end at all.
It’s the latter that prey on your mind.
As a child growing up in the Cleveland area, I was intrigued by the Marilyn Sheppard murder, the subsequent arrest of her husband, Sam Sheppard, his conviction and his eventual acquittal. Who really killed Marilyn Sheppard? It doesn’t seem we ever will know for sure.
Back in 1970, a 14-year-old girl was raped and murdered in the Littleton area as she walked home one evening. I never covered the original story, but I did follow up stories over the years and the event intersected with my life at various times. That crime has never been solved, despite the efforts of many. The victim would be 64 today had she lived.
That same year, the body of an unidentified young man was discovered on Independence Pass. Back in 2016, I learned about the Independence Pass John Doe when I was contacted by Sylvia Pettem, a woman who helps people find missing persons.
I researched the event in the old Herald Democrat bound volumes and wrote a story, hoping that the words might reach some family member or friend who was still searching for this missing person.
The story begins on June 19, 1970 when two young men walking east from the summit of Independence Pass discovered the decomposed body of a white male lying in a ditch on the north side of the road about 2 miles from the top of the pass.
The Herald Democrat of that time quoted the Lake County Sheriff’s Office in saying the body appeared to be that of a person in his early 20s, 5’7” to 5’8” in height. The entire left arm and rib cage of the body was missing. Months later the missing body parts were found in the vicinity by a highway maintenance man.
John Doe had expensive dental work, with gold and platinum fillings. He had dark hair and was dressed in a tattered sweatshirt and grey trousers. He wore three pairs of socks with an unworn sock over the left shoe. In his pockets were $7 and a razor. Searches failed to turn up any identification in the area.
Although there was some investigation of missing persons at the time, none turned out to be the Independence Pass John Doe. Eventually he was buried in the Evergreen Cemetery with a metal marker saying “Unidentified Male, May 1970.” (Although he was found in June, it seems that someone figured he actually died in May.)
John Doe remained in the cemetery until John Piearson discovered the marker when cleaning up the cemetery and contacted Audrey Simkins, crime/intelligence analyst with the Colorado Bureau of Investigation. Simkins, in turn, contacted Pettem, who has extensive experience in identifying John and Jane Does.
The two came to Leadville and met with the sheriff who told them he could find no records at the office about the unidentified man. Pettem contacted Coroner Shannon Kent and told him how to enter the information about the John Doe in NamUs database. Information about him can be found at https://identifyus.org/en/cases/10738.
In fall 2013, the body was disinterred under Kent’s direction. A fingerprint and some DNA was obtained.
When I learned about Independence Pass John Doe in 2016, I was able to gather some information from the old issues of the paper, the sheriff and the coroner, and ran a story in the hope that it would ring some sort of bell with someone. No one responded and at the time the coroner said he was awaiting the return of the skull from University of Northern Texas where additional DNA was to be extracted.
The Herald mentioned Independence Pass John Doe again in 2017 when Pettem published her book, “The Long Term Missing,” which includes a section on him. At the time, the coroner said he planned to bury the body that spring.
Since that time, I haven’t thought much about John Doe, believing he was back in Evergreen Cemetery where he could be found if a family member ever shows up. This changed recently when I was reviewing the police report about the sheriff’s office executing a search warrant at the Bailey Kent Funeral Home on Oct. 2. The report referenced finding a coffin, sealed shut, with dirt on it from a disinterment in 2013. One of the photos accompanying the report showed a coffin labeled Mr. John Doe — Disinter — 10-8-13.
Although my recent inquiry to the coroner went unanswered, it seems possible that that coffin contains the Independence Pass John Doe, and he never made it back to the cemetery.
I can’t help but wonder: Why was John Doe wearing a sock over his shoe? Why no identification? Was he carrying a bag of some sort that got separated from his body? Why wasn’t he more warmly dressed considering it was May on Independence Pass? Why hasn’t anyone been looking for him?
The only consolation is that he is now listed in the NamUs data base, and there is DNA if someone comes searching.
Another case with more questions than answers. At the very least, I hope Independence John Doe will someday be able to rest In peace.