JACKSON — Wearing black gloves, Sgt. Clay Platt opens a box full of bones that’s been sitting in the Teton County Sheriff’s Office evidence room for more than two decades.
One by one he places what’s left of the human body onto a large sheet of brown paper.
“Every time a missing person report comes in we check to see if it’s him,” Platt said.
The man’s entire skeleton, including his skull, fits neatly in three cardboard boxes and is usually on a shelf in the evidence area, a narrow room in the back of the sheriff’s office investigations unit.
Threads from the man’s clothing are kept in another box, alongside pieces of an old intravenous bag and Polaroid prints of his final resting place up Cache Creek.
Now the sheriff’s office is reopening the cold case.
“We just wondered if something has come up since 1998 that could help us identify him,” Platt said.
Detective Andy Pearson, a veteran evidence technician who’s new to the sheriff’s office, has been working to reorganize the evidence room. Earlier this summer he and Platt came across the skeletal remains and had an idea.
“If nothing else we just want to know who he is so we can return him to his family,” Pearson said.
They put in a call to the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification.
“It’s a well-known lab within the homicide and missing persons fields,” Platt said. “They said if we had a long bone to send it down.”
Pearson packaged up one of the man’s tibia bones and shipped it to Fort Worth, Texas, where it awaits testing.
Its examination is one last Hail Mary in the case, one last chance to identify the man whose name and story have remained a mystery to investigators ever since a hiker came across his skull in 1998.
“It was early May, and I went up Cache Creek because it had been really rainy,” Kent Fiske said, “and the storms had broken, so I finally had a clear afternoon. So I went up with my dog.”
Fiske is the type of person who pays attention to his surroundings. He remembers the hike vividly, even 22 years later.
“It was quite distinctive,” he told the News&Guide. “I decided to go see what was up the hillside, expecting to see some wildflowers. But what I found sure looked like a skull ... I circled it. You don’t usually find human skulls sitting up Cache Creek, especially really old ones like this. So I walked around it a couple times.”
Fiske was on his bike, so he left the skull where he found it.
“I moved some sticks around to mark the spot,” he said.
These were the days before GPS, so he led detectives to it the next day, though they were skeptical, assuming Fiske had found a bear or elk skull.
“I think they thought I was going to show them something that wasn’t interesting,” he said. “But he saw right away it was the real deal.”
Lindsey Moss, an investigator at the sheriff’s office at the time, determined that the skull did belong to a human and that he was an adult who had been dead for over a year.
At the time Moss was hoping they’d get a tip from the public that would lead them to identifying the man.
But their break never came.
“I think it would be great to have an answer now,” Moss told the News&Guide.
Based on Fiske’s May 12, 1998, discovery the sheriff’s office launched a massive search in the area, north of Cache Creek Road above the old trailhead.
For a week all Keith Benefiel and his search partner Craig Harmening found were elk bones.
“We logged everything,” Benefiel said Tuesday morning during a visit to the site. “We brought back bags and bags of deer and elk bones.”
A few weeks after the skull was discovered, Benefiel and Harmening came across the rest of the man.
“The field was all open,” Benefiel said Tuesday morning during a visit to the site, gesturing to a stand of aspens that have sprouted up in the 22 years since.
Benefiel’s dogs alerted to the bones, which got their attention.
“Dulce knew right away,” Harmening said.
They remember the discovery in vivid detail.
“It was a headless body,” Benefiel recalled. “There was a needle still where his arm was, and there were tubes and vials and a sneaker with a foot in it.
Above the skeletal remains they found a bottle hanging from a tree with rubber tubing like an IV drip that had been set up.
“We couldn’t believe what we were seeing,” Benefiel said. “There were bones and threads of clothes and IV tubes.”
The IV tubing led Moss to believe the man took his own life.
“I believed then and I believe now it was probably a drug overdose, whether it was intentional or accidental, I don’t know,” Moss said. “But I lean toward intentional. There was no evidence of a gun shot.”
Platt said there’s nothing to indicate the man was murdered. But the medical equipment found near the body could have been as simple as a hydration method, he said.
“At the time they even checked St. John’s to make sure a patient hadn’t escaped,” Platt said.
But liquid found in the tubes was too degraded to test, deepening the mystery around how the man died and whether or not he meant to.
“Who knows what happened to him,” Benefiel said. “Maybe he had a disease, maybe he was just done with life. He was all seeds and stems when we found him.”
With almost a full skeleton, including the man’s teeth, which still had some enamel on them, detectives dove into the investigation with high hopes of identifying the man.
But dental records were checked against hundreds of charts of missing people and didn’t drum up anything.
Moss sent the skull to be examined by anthropologists at the University of Wyoming, who said it likely belonged to a middle-aged man.
At the time there were two missing persons reports, but the skull didn’t match those.
Moss was excited to hear detectives are taking another stab at matching the man’s DNA.
“The technology they have access to today far surpasses what we had then,” Moss said.
When news of the skeletal discovery spread in the late ’90s, the sheriff’s office got a strange call.
According to a story in the June 3, 1998, Jackson Hole News, “The person would not leave his name or number. The caller said he found a suicide note in the parking lot at the end of the road in Cache Creek several years ago.”
The caller said the note was “obviously a suicide note” but had been rained on and run over so many times the writing and signature were barely legible.
The man didn’t notify police when he found the note and said he no longer lived in Jackson and had lost the note. The anonymous tip about the lost suicide note was barely helpful, investigators said at the time.
“We could never track it down,” Moss said. “I think if it was turned over to law enforcement when it was found it would have had greater value.”
Further lab testing revealed the skull belonged to a man who was most likely in his 20s or 30s. With that information, and little else, investigators reconstructed his face using the skull and lower jaw.
The profile ran on the front page of the April 14, 2000, Jackson Hole Daily with an accompanying headline, “Cache Creek mystery skull finally gets a face.”
Moss told The Daily then that his office had exhausted all other leads and they hoped someone would recognize the clay face and call them. It also appeared on flyers around town.
Though done by an expert the clay head looked strange. It had a long flat nose and pursed lips. They put a winter beanie on it because investigators had no idea what the man’s hair looked like.
They thought if it even sort of resembled someone, even if he was a jobless transient staying at the Good Samaritan Mission, maybe someone would recognize him and call in.
The clay head turned up nothing.
At the sheriff’s office last week, Platt looked through the last box of evidence, which holds the Polaroids of the scene and some IV paraphernalia.
He wonders if anyone is still looking for the man.
“Maybe in, say, Connecticut, someone reported him as missing,” Platt said. “They can do the scientific DNA testing and run it against any missing persons DNA in the national missing persons clearing house.”
The University of North Texas Center for Human Identification provides analysis for human remains through DNA samples from unidentified remains and samples submitted by family members of missing people.
The center is capable of mitochondrial DNA evaluation and is the largest contributor to the Combined DNA Index System, also known as CODIS, a database for unidentified missing person cases, according to its website.
It also manages the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) for the U.S. Department of Justice.
Platt isn’t sure if they’ll get a hit on the Cache Creek man’s bone.
“It’s worth a try,” he said. “It’s just one more step in a case with no leads.”
It’s one of only a few cases that those involved still tend to think about from time to time.
Fiske, Benefiel and Moss all still wonder who he was, what his story was, what brought the man to Jackson and if there’s anyone out there who loved him. The DNA test could be a shot in the dark but the point is to get the man to his proper resting place, wherever that may be.
“There is someone, somewhere, looking for this person perhaps,” Moss said.