Author Topic: FLAGPOLE JOHN DOE: WM, 20-40, jumped from a flagpole in Anchorage, AK - 24 August 1989  (Read 190 times)


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Doe on arrival

Debra McKinney
Aug 10, 2016

A backhoe can only do so much. So when it got to that point, because it was his case, Anchorage Police Department Detective James Trull grabbed a shovel, stepped down and started digging alongside others at Anchorage Memorial Park cemetery last July. One shovel full at a time, the team filled five-gallon buckets, passing them to those up top, until they reached what was left of the blown-out plywood coffin at the bottom of Track 13, Space 24.

Lying in that grave, they hoped, was the answer to a 26-year-old mystery, one that began at 11:30 the morning of August 23, 1989, when someone flagged down a patrol car to report a man strolling down Mountain View Drive wearing only a beard.

Officer Fred Jones spotted the naked man coming around the back of McDonald's, where he paused, looked around, strolled over to the tallest of three flagpoles at the building's front entrance and shinnied 30 feet up "like a squirrel," Jones recalled recently. "Naked, and right up the pole like nobody's business."

Clinging to the top by his legs, the man didn't seem to hear or see anyone; not the gawkers who had gathered, not Jones nor any of the other officers who'd arrived by then and were trying to talk him down. He seemed to be communing with the eagle ornament at the top.

At the bottom of the pole, Officer James Loesch had just turned his back to grab a loudspeaker from his patrol car when-to everyone's horror-the man stretched out his arms like wings, kicked off with his feet and did a swan dive headfirst onto the concrete, landing about six feet from Loesch's heels.

"It went from kind of humorous to, 'Oh my God!'" recalled former APD Sgt. Mike Grimes, now retired and living in Florida.

Despite efforts to save him, the man died the next morning at a local hospital the same way he was admitted, as a John Doe.

"We never found a shred of his clothing or anything," said Loesch, who spent considerable time searching the area.

The investigator assigned to the case tried everything from checking with mental health facilities, to sending the dead man's fingerprints and dental records to the FBI and missing person clearinghouses in all 50 states. He even ran the case by Interpol, an international law enforcement organization made up of 190 countries. There were no hits.

Not knowing who he was or where he came from "bugged the hell out of everyone," Grimes said.

And so, on a cold, breezy September day, the dead man joined the other John, Jane, Baby and undetermined Does buried in Anchorage Memorial Park, a man with no name among some of the most well-known names and characters in Alaska history. And there he stayed for 26 years, with a simple granite grave marker framed in sod:

John Doe, 1989 - 1989.

It took more than two decades for the case of the so-called Flagpole Jumper to get its first lead. A California woman researching the online National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs, read details of the case and believed she'd finally found her brother.

Three-and-a-half years before the man leapt to his death, Gordon Bethel Lopez, a 21-year-old Reed College student living in Portland, Ore., cleaned out his apartment, put his mail on hold and returned a college tuition check to his mother with a note saying she'd never see or hear from him again. His sister, Terry Mihok, was 18 at the time and didn't know what happened between them. Lopez was last seen Jan. 3, 1986. None of his possessions were ever found, not even his car.

"So he disappeared," Mihok said by phone last summer. "I couldn't understand how such a big part of my life was simply gone forever."

She'd been searching for him ever since, dreaming that he was still alive. Then she came upon the flagpole story on NamUs and everything fit-the physical description, the forensic artist's rendition of his face, the Alaska connection. Her brother had worked as a logger in Southeast the summer before he disappeared. Even the naked part had a familiar ring to it, since one time, high on acid, he took off his clothes and started preaching to people, she said. And he once told her that if he ever committed suicide, he'd do it a public way to make a statement.

"And if this really is Gordon," she said last summer, "he killed himself on my mother's birthday."

Mihok contacted detectives in Portland and Anchorage and submitted her DNA. Still in its infancy in 1989, DNA was never taken from the Flagpole Jumper until after his body was exhumed last July. As it was-and still is-with unknowns, he'd had a pauper's burial in a simple plywood casket covered in gray felt, no pillow. Codes have since changed requiring all coffins to be placed inside protective containers, but back then, the weight of the soil collapsed his. Although the body wasn't in the greatest shape, the State Medical Examiner's Office got what it needed.

After the exhumation, the brother's dental records were compared to those taken during the 1989 autopsy. They didn't match. James Trull, the APD detective in charge of the flagpole case, broke the news to Mihok.

"It's so unlikely that all those circumstances are mere coincidences," she wrote via email at the time. "I can imagine along the chain of custody his records may have been compromised. Also, the dentist we got those from, our family hadn't even seen in years, as far as I know. I hadn't seen him since I was a child, about 10 years old.

"I would rather it not be him, but I really feel like it is. But time will tell."

Because DNA has the final say, the Medical Examiner's Office shipped teeth and a femur via Fed Ex to the Center for Human Identification at the University of North Texas in Fort Worth. As a suicide rather than a more pressing homicide case, the results would take six months to a year.

They've finally come back. Confirmed. It's not him.

"It was definitely a letdown," said Trull, who had to make a second difficult phone call to Mihok. "I'd told her about the dental records so I think she half expected it. She was obviously disappointed, as were all of us."

That would include Lori Fonken, the Portland detective in charge of the Gordon Bethel Lopez missing person case. Comparing the Polaroid snapped during the man's autopsy in 1989 to photographs of Mihok's brother, she found "striking similarities.

"I was just surprised," Fonken said of the DNA results. "I was hoping this would be a closed case."

Stephen Hoage, operations administrator and investigator at the State Medical Examiner's Office, oversaw the exhumation.

"I understand why [Mihok] thought it was him," he said. "I was probably 95 percent sure before we exhumed him that we were going to end up with a match. I was 95 percent sure that it wasn't him after the dentals."

It was a round of disappointment for the house. But not all was for naught because now the man's DNA is in the system. If a family member ever surfaces, the man will get his name and history back.

Alaska's Unknowns

For now, what's left of the exhumed, nameless man is in a box in the bone room at the Medical Examiner's Office off Tudor Road. Hoage isn't sure how long the Flagpole Jumper will be there, but at some point he'll end up back in the ground at Anchorage Memorial Park, back to being one of the staggering number of unidentified bodies lying in graveyards, morgues, freezers and bone rooms across the country.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Death Index doesn't include statistics on unidentified bodies, but a 2007 U.S. Department of Justice report counted more than 10,000 unknowns between 1980 and 2004 alone, with nearly three-quarters found in Florida, New York, and the border states of Arizona, California and Texas.

Alaska has few by comparison. The Alaska Bureau of Vital Statistics has a Doe count of 141 from 1900 - 2015, those whose last names are listed as Doe, "unknown" or have been left blank. Of those, 42 are female, 95 are male and four are undetermined.

"These unidentifieds come to us in many conditions," Hoage said. "We get a lot of bone cases where we may get a femur or a mandible and that's all we get, up to a full body that's decomposed, up to a homeless person who may have died within the past few hours and nobody knows who they are."

Like the Flagpole Jumper, some die as Does on purpose. For instance, the man who years ago checked into an Anchorage hotel room under a fake name then shot himself in the head, leaving not even a toothbrush. He died a John Doe, but didn't stay one long. Franklin Perry was a postal worker; his fingerprints were on file. He'd come all the way from the Bronx to die here, and had even paid for his own cremation, also under a bogus name.

When a Doe comes into the State Medical Examiner's Office, as all Alaska's Does do, pathologists and their teams look inside and out for clues, documenting everything they see. During the autopsy, they take full body photos, front, back, all angles, Hoage said. If any fingertips are left, prints are taken and entered into the Automated Fingerprint Identification System. DNA samples are collected and, after analysis, entered into the Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS.

"During the autopsy we are going to document any surgical history," he said. "We're going to know if they may have had a kidney removed or an appendectomy or whatever. We're going to document all the scars, marks, and tattoos on the person."

All clothing is photographed and inventoried, all details noted including size, color and brand. Same for jewelry and other items found with the body.

Post mortem dental x-rays are taken, and a forensic odontologist charts the teeth.

Teeth. Hoage stressed how important they are to solving a Doe case quickly. If a friend or family member is missing, after filing a missing person report, the next most important step is getting the person's dental records, since most dentist offices destroy records after seven years of inactivity.

If all the pathology team has to work with is bones, they may be sent out for examination by forensic anthropologists at the King County Medical Examiner's office in Seattle or to the Center for Human Identification in Texas. If anthropologists determine they are at least 100 years old, the bones are considered historical rather than forensic.

As all this information becomes available, it's entered into the NamUS database and the FBI's National Crime Information Center.

If a person still can't be identified, a forensic artist may then work up a facial reconstruction or use an autopsy photo to create an image for release to the public.

"It's kind of a last resort where we're really looking for help," Hoage said. "We don't want families to find out that their family member is deceased by seeing their picture in the paper."

The Latest John Doe

In Anchorage, the most recent unknown is a man found May 18 in a tent in the woods behind Lowes on Tudor Road. He left few clues, just two sleeping bags, a pull-over, a t-shirt, a pair of pants, a belt, underwear, long underwear, four pairs of socks, a headband, a key chain with four keys, a fingernail clipper, a lighter and a button.

"Because of the conditions of the remains we couldn't estimate the height or weight," Hoage said. "We don't know the hair color or length. There were remains of a mustache and beard, at least partial. Fingerprints in this case were not available. Of course we can't tell the color of the eyes."

The key to learning who he was may lie in fractured bone. He had a plate and six screws implanted in his right ankle so he may have walked with a limp.

"We're hoping somebody will come forward and go, 'I talked to 'Joe,' and he was talking about how he broke his ankle, and I haven't seen him in a couple of years, or a year or whatever,'" Hoage said.

What little is known about the man has been entered into the NamUs Unidentified Persons Database where it can be compared to the system's Missing Persons Database in hopes of finding a match. His body is now at the Center for Human Identification in Texas. All new information-his age, race and DNA-will be entered into CODIS. If he still can't be identified, he'll likely join the two dozen other unknowns in the ground at Anchorage Memorial Park. Plus whoever's in the ceramic urn someone abandoned on the cemetery lawn last year. The urn had no identification inside or out, no stainless steel identification tag that typically goes into the crematory with the body.

Robert Jones, cemetery director, tried to find out who might be in there.

"We reached out to funeral homes: 'Have you sold this urn?' Do you know if anyone is asking about this urn?' We didn't get any responses back. So it just ended up in our care in our Columbarium Wall. It's above ground, we have access to it year round so if anybody ever showed up saying, 'Did you find grandma's urn?' We would know where grandma is."

Alaska's raucous '80s account for more than half of the cemetery's Does, including five babies and two victims of "Butcher Baker" Robert Hansen, the Anchorage serial rapist and killer who murdered at least 17 teenage girls and women. Only 12 bodies were found.

One of them, a white brunette in her 20s, was discovered in 1980 by power line workers near Eklutna, thus the nickname Eklutna Annie. Hanson confessed that after abducting her he drove to the remote area and ordered her out of his truck. She ran, he grabbed her by her hair, she pulled a knife, he wrestled it away and stabbed her in the back. Her body was exhumed in 2003 for DNA collection, and was reburied the following year.

The other Hanson victim buried downtown was also a white brunette, this one thought to be in her late teens. After Hansen was caught, he led investigators to her body near Horseshoe Lake in the Matanuska Valley. Referred to as Horseshoe Harriet, she was exhumed two years ago for DNA analysis, facial reconstruction and age-progression imaging. She has yet to be reburied and remains in the walk-in freezer at the Medical Examiner's Office.

The oldest unknown buried in Anchorage Memorial Park was a man who drowned in 1916, the year after Anchorage was founded. The most recent was an Alaska Native man whose body was found in the Chugiak area in 1997, according to the cemetery's burial master list.

Thirty years in the burial and cremation business, Anchorage mortician Robert Ferrell has taken care of many of the cemetery's unknowns, including the Hansen victims and the Chugiak man. Nothing at the scene, he noted, shed any light on who he was or why he was there.

"He just came out of nowhere and nobody is missing him," Ferrell wrote via email. "I can tell you that I did do a little Christian service at the time of the burial even though it was just me and the cemetery crew. I believe that everyone I bury should have some sort of ceremony to say goodbye."

No one who was there when the Flagpole Jumper hit the pavement-certainly not the officers involved-would ever forget what they witnessed that day. James Loesch, the officer at the bottom of the pole, has thought about him through the years and wondered.

"What about family or friends? What kind of life did he lead to push him to this tragic end?"

The day the he went into the ground, representatives of the mental health community showed up to see him off. Since his autopsy was unable to detect drugs or alcohol, it was assumed he was having a psychotic episode when he jumped.

His exhumation last summer didn't provide the answers everyone was hoping for, didn't close one of the most bewildering cases in APD history. And now those following the case have two mysteries on their minds. If the Flagpole Jumper isn't Terry Mihok's brother, then who is he? And where is Gordon Bethel Lopez?