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Unmarked and sadly unknown John Doe sits in between the graves of Michael Borseth (left) and Joel Dressel. Buried in 2004 investigators believe the man, who was Hispanic in origin, was believed to be in his 40's. (Luke Franke/Grand Forks Herald)

Unidentified body found over a decade ago only case of its kind in North Dakota

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One week before Christmas in 2003, Grand Forks sanitation department workers, on a break to retrieve some baling wire, noticed a man’s jacket in the garbage offload area.

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“They pulled on the jacket, and an arm came with it,” said Brian Kroese, current sanitation supervisor. “That’s when they found the body.” He was dead.

Over the next few months, investigators found few telling details. He was Hispanic, with a neatly-trimmed black mustache and some facial stubble. He was likely in his mid-40s. But he carried no wallet, no identification and no personal belongings other than a bus ticket from Omaha, a slip of paper scrawled in Spanish and some basic toiletries — a comb, toothpaste and deodorant.

Today, more than a decade later, the man remains unidentified. His is the only open case in North Dakota and the first unidentified person local investigators had come across in decades, said Grand Forks Police Sgt. Duane Simon, a former investigator assigned to the case.

It’s also the only one of its kind in the region. In Minnesota, 68 of 74 total unidentified cases are still open, none of which are in the northwest part of the state, according to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, a searchable database of hundreds of unidentifiable human remains found across the nation.

“This is a case I won’t easily forget,” said Simon.

The investigation

After that first frigid December day, investigators embarked on a several-month inquiry that involved dozens of local, state, federal and even international workers.

During the initial assessment, they noticed he wore multiple jackets — likely in preparation for the bitter cold — and he didn’t appear to be living on the streets, said Dr. Mary Ann Sens, Grand Forks County coroner. An autopsy showed some evidence of heart disease but no signs of drug use and no broken bones, she said.

The only confirmation of his activity before he died came from a bus driver. The driver offered to drop the man off at the Northlands Rescue Mission shelter that evening, but the man turned it down, they said.

Investigators suspect he was an illegal immigrant who’d come in search of work, an idea fostered by the note he’d been carrying, which had the name of a former Mexican restaurant here. He likely made his way to the restaurant but as the night wore on, crawled into a Dumpster to protect himself from the cold, they said. 

“He was probably a clean-living individual, from probably Mexico, maybe Guatemala, who wanted to send some money back to his family,” Sens said.

Circumstances surrounding his death are unclear. Sanitation workers couldn’t pinpoint where the man had come from because he was found during the offloading process at the baling facility, said Kroese. Drivers can maneuver halfway through town before they gather enough for their first load, and once they dump the garbage at the baling facility, it gets mixed with the other trash, he said.

“It was cold (that day) and if you’re in a front-load Dumpster, you can’t holler loud enough for the driver to hear you,” he said.

He’d been deceased “maybe a couple of hours” before being discovered, which was consistent with his arrival the night before and being found at 9 a.m. the next morning, Sens said.

International, national help

As investigators pieced together these details, they contacted media outlets, the International Criminal Police Organization, the Omaha Police Department, the Mexican consulate and several other agencies to identify the man.

Sens said they’d also reached out to forensic dentists, administered X-rays and entered the man’s DNA into a database. This could indicate whether he’d ever been arrested for a case or had security clearance when DNA was required, she said. They also ruled out any other missing or unidentified people.

“We tried everything,” said Simon.

Callers offered leads for investigators to pursue, but the case eventually fell to the wayside as other cases came in, they said. The last time Simon updated the case was September 2004, he said.

After waiting a few months for the body to be identified, and for better conditions for the burial, Sens and a few others held a nondenominational ceremony for him that spring at the county cemetery, adjacent to Memorial Park Cemetery.  Coroner protocol requires bodies such as this to be buried in the event an exhumation is necessary, said investigators.

But without a family to pay for a gravestone, the county buried his remains in an unmarked plot, said Robin Purcell, administrator of the Grand Forks Cemetery Association. His is one of countless unmarked plots in the cemetery, offered free to families who cannot afford burial services.

“I don’t think anyone could even research to find out exactly how many John Does were buried in the cemetery,” he said.  

Investigators say they still want the man to be identified for the sake of his family. Simon, who drives by the cemetery daily as part of his patrol route, said the case still affects him.

“I think about him every day,” he said. “It happens every day. It’s probably the only case where I do that.”

On the web: The website for the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System is at www.namus.gov

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Jennifer Johnson
Jennifer Johnson is the K-12 education reporter for The Grand Forks Herald.  Contact her if you have any story ideas or tips and visit www.grandforksherald.com. 
(701) 787-6736
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