In October 2003, a hunter found a human skull in the woods near Marion. Seventeen years later, it remains one of Flathead County’s only unidentified deaths.
Story by Justin Franz | Photos by Hunter D’Antuono
Everything he had with him the day he died fits inside a single cardboard box. Most of his possessions — a knife, sunglasses, a bottle of Aleve, a pipe, and a book — are shoved in brown paper bags from Rosauers that have been folded up inside the box for 17 years. Shelley Giebeig, a coroner and detective’s secretary with the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office, removes each bag and spreads out the contents on a conference room table, careful to not rip the disintegrating paperback pages or to fray the blue fanny pack that contained it.
“What’s this stuff?” asks a gruff detective poking his head inside the room.
“Its Cliff’s things,” Giebeig says.
“Cliff” is the nickname given by deputies and detectives to the man at the center of Flathead County Sheriff’s Office Case No. 200323911, one of the only cases of unidentified human remains in the county.
Giebeig first heard of Cliff about three years ago. As the detective’s secretary, she assists a number of officers with different investigations. Intrigued by the story of the unidentified man found at the bottom of a cliff, she typed the case number into the sheriff’s office database.
On Oct. 26, 2003, a husband and wife were hunting in a wooded area off Red Gate Road near Marion, about 30 miles west of Kalispell. The couple, Ed and Bonnie Peter, had been walking along the top of a cliff that morning when they stopped to take a drink of water. While gazing out at the mountains to the north, Ed looked down and saw a dilapidated bag. Inside the bag was a Smith & Wesson .22 caliber semi-automatic pistol. Ed told his wife it was weird that someone would leave a gun at the top of the cliff and hypothesized, jokingly, that the owner was probably at the bottom of the cliff. The couple decided to check it out, and at the base of the cliff, they found a water bottle, the tattered remains of a shoe and a human skull. They drove out to U.S. Highway 2 to get cell service and called 911.
Officers from the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks arrived on the scene and launched a search of the area. Detectives combed the underbrush and found a number of packrat nests where rodents had stashed away other bone fragments and items. The rats had apparently scattered items connected to the body throughout the area; by the end of the day, the search team had gathered a butterfly knife, a small plastic Aleve bottle, a hand-held electronic poker game, a ragged fanny pack, coins, sunglasses, .22 caliber bullets and a marijuana pipe. During a subsequent search, authorities found additional bones — including what was believed to be ribs, a femur and pelvic bone — along with the remains of a book called “Phases of Gravity” by Dan Simmons, a novel first published in 1989 that chronicles the struggles of an astronaut on Earth after he walked on the moon.
The skull and the other bones were sent to the Montana State Crime Lab in Missoula. The skull was mostly intact, except for the jaw and a hole above the right ear. A report by the deputy state medical examiner was inconclusive on the cause of death, but stated, “Given the outward bevel at the edge of the defect in the right side of the cranium, on what would most likely be a concentric fracture, and the outward displacement of the section of cranium above the defect (i.e. the right parietal bone), the injuries are consistent with most likely having occurred due to a gunshot wound; however, blunt force injuries cannot be entirely excluded as a potential cause.”
Meanwhile, detectives looked for clues in the items found around the cliff. The newest coin among the two dimes, two quarters and one nickel was date-stamped 1990. The bottle of Aleve was likely produced between June 1994, when the pain reliever was first distributed, and January 1997 when Bayer took over for Procter & Gamble and changed the bottle. The Adidas shoes were manufactured in May 1995. The .22 caliber pistol, serial number UAD3815, was first produced by Smith & Wesson in 1987. Law enforcement determined that the gun had been sold to a Utah man in 1994. Detectives spoke to the man, who said that he had pawned the gun off sometime in 1994 or 1995 when he was going through a divorce. The man named two pawn shops he may have sold it to, and detectives spoke to managers of both, but neither had any record of the gun. Despite the lack of information surrounding the gun’s ownership after 1995, authorities decided that they had “no reason” to consider the previous owner was a suspect.
Taken together, the evidence suggests that the man died sometime between May 1995 and October 2002.
Not long after the discovery of the body, a man called the sheriff’s office to report that he had found an abandoned vehicle near Red Gate Road years earlier. The man recalled that the property owner had the vehicle towed to the county landfill. Authorities looked for records of the vehicle’s disposal but were unable to come up with additional information.
A year later, in November 2004, a Lincoln County man contacted law enforcement to report that one of his hired hands had gone missing in November 2000 and that it was possible the skull found near Marion belonged to him. Law enforcement later eliminated the missing Lincoln County man as a match.
Eventually, the number of leads dwindled, and the case of Cliff Doe went from open to cold.
“We did as much as we could but we just never had that missing person’s report to match up with it,” says Glen Fulton, the detective in charge of the case back in 2003. “Someone somewhere is missing someone but we just can’t connect the dots.”
Over the years, people like Giebeig, retired deputy and detective Nick Fister and students and researchers at the University of Montana’s Department of Anthropology have revisited the case. In 2004, students at UM produced a facial reconstruction that was later distributed to the public to see if anyone recognized him. At the time, authorities estimated that the man was between the ages of 21 and 36 and was 5’5” to 5’10” in height. Another analysis of the skull by UM students in 2018 estimated that the man was between the ages of 33 and 60 and was 5’5” to 6’2” in height.
In 2011, Fister, who was one of the first deputies on the scene back in 2003, returned to the cliff with a metal detector. During his visit, he found another rat’s nest near where the skull was originally located, and inside he discovered more bones and a sock. The bones were sent to the state crime lab, which determined that they were human. Fister says he went back because he knows someone is out there looking for the man and that there is an answer to all the unanswered questions, somewhere.
“The right clue is out there,” he says. “It’s just going to take time to find it.”
Perhaps no one has taken as much of an interest in the Cliff Doe case as Giebeig. In 2017, she updated all the case’s available information into a national database for missing people. Then in early 2018, Giebeig read that law enforcement had been able to use a genealogy website to track down the notorious Golden State Killer, a California man responsible for more than 50 rapes and at least 13 murders between 1973 and 1986. People submit DNA information (usually by spitting into a cup) to the website hoping to find family members, and while the site didn’t have the murderer’s DNA, it did have the genetic information of a family member. Authorities were able to narrow their suspects down to one family, providing the leads they needed to find 74-year-old Joseph James DeAngelo Jr. Giebeig reached out to the genealogy site, which directed her to the DNA Doe Project, a volunteer effort that uses genetic genealogy to identify John and Jane Does.
Jackie Jones is a volunteer with the DNA Doe Project. Jones is a civil engineer in Louisiana but spends her free time using genetic information to create family trees to help solve cold cases. Although the DNA work is a hobby, she says she sometimes treats it like a full-time job. Jones was part of the team that helped identify the “Belle in the Well,” a woman who was found strangled to death in a well in rural Ohio in 1981.
Volunteers like Jones take DNA from unidentified people and compare it to publicly available genetic databases, although not all are available for such work. Popular sites like Ancestry and 23andMe have restricted access to their databases by law enforcement or people trying to solve crimes, although the sites will not stop someone from taking their own DNA information and uploading it to a site like GEDmatch, which was used in the Golden State Killer case. When volunteers find a genetic match to a family member or distant relative, they start constructing a family tree. That process could involve combing the web and other archives for already established family trees, and perusing obituaries that list family members or other evidence.
“It’s like a big puzzle,” Jones says. “Genealogy is usually about building a family tree backwards, but we’re trying to build a family tree forwards… Sometimes we can figure it out in a couple hours or weeks, but other cases are a long slog.”
The case of Cliff Doe is turning into a long slog.
Presently, the closest genetic match Jones and her fellow volunteers have found for Cliff is someone approximately 70 centimorgans away. For laypeople, a centimorgan is a unit for measuring genetic linkage; the more centimorgans, the more likely someone is a direct relative. For example, there are 3,600 centimorgans between a child and a parent. Seventy centimorgans means there’s a 33 percent chance that the two people could be half third cousins. So far, Jones has been able to determine that Cliff was somehow related to a husband and wife born in Kentucky in the early 19th century. The man, born in about 1822, and the woman, born around 1817, had at least 10 children together and many more grandchildren and great grandchildren. Jones is working to identify the family lineage that connects Cliff with the Kentucky couple, but she admits it will likely take time, with many dead ends. Creating family trees can also be complicated by the fact that some offspring may not be documented, like those born out of wedlock.
“When you’re going that far back, you have to go through a lot of people to bring it back to today,” she says. “But there’s a thrill to doing this work. The thrill of solving it keeps you going. Even figuring out a new potential relative is exciting because it brings you a little closer to an answer.”
Fister says he believes work by the DNA Doe Project combined with information from the many genetic databases will eventually help identity Cliff Doe.
“The right person is going to spit into a cup and send it into one of these ancestry websites, and we’ll suddenly get a match,” Fister says, although that might be an oversimplified version of how it could play out.
He says that if the case is solved in the coming years, it will have a lot to do with Giebeig’s efforts in updating the missing persons database and enlisting the help of the DNA Doe Project.
This July, Giebeig drove out to Red Gate Road and hiked to the spot where Cliff Doe was first found back in 2003. The cliff face is shaded by trees, and the underbrush is heavy. Giebeig says she believes people like her and Fister haven’t given up on the case because somewhere out there is a piece of evidence that will solve the mystery — something as simple as a faded driver’s license in the weeds or something as complex as a genetic connection.
“There could be all sorts of evidence out here, and I think that’s why people keep coming back to this case,” she says. “Who was he? Where did he come from? How did he die? There are just so many unanswered questions.”
Because of the lack of evidence, authorities have never been able to conclusively rule out homicide as the cause of death. It is also very possible that the man committed suicide, but, again, there is no definitive evidence.
Today, a small white cross sits at the top of the cliff where the man died. Ed Peter, the man who found Cliff Doe 17 years ago, put it there a year or two after the discovery. Peter says he did it because he thought the site should be marked, even if the man’s identity is shrouded in mystery. He says he still thinks about the discovery every now and then, particularly during hunting season.
“It baffles me that they haven’t figured out who this guy is,” he says. “But I guess if he was some sort of hitchhiker in a place where no one knows him that could happen.”
Giebeig says she thinks about the man often and even recently started to read the “Phases of Gravity,” the book that was found with him when he died, thinking that maybe it would reveal something about his personality or his mindset when he died.
It’s feasible that the man could be identified someday without ever figuring out how or why he died. Giebeig says she’s hopeful that people beyond Fister, Peter and herself are interested in giving Cliff Doe a real name.
“I’d really like to believe that there is someone out there still looking for him,” she says.
Justin Franz is a freelance writer, photographer and editor based in Whitefish. Originally from Maine, he is a graduate of the University of Montana’s School of Journalism and worked for the Flathead Beacon for nine years. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Seattle Times and New York Times. Find him at justinfranz.com.