A disturbing find in the woods of Charlotte County could link a suspected serial killer to another murder.
But Cold Case Unit detectives must first ID the victim.
1994: In the woods behind a Charlotte County intersection, detectives find the remains of a man, mostly bones.
They have no clue who it is or what happened until stumbling on an unlikely coincidence.
“A couple years later when we started finding other bodies that were attributed to — at least one was attributed to Daniel Conahan — we were curious because it was the same general area that we had found two of our murder victims,” said Mike Gandy, with the Charlotte County Cold Case Unit.
Curious because Daniel Owen Conahan Jr., the so-called Hog Trail Murders serial killer, was on death row for the gruesome murder of Richard Allen Montgomery, whose mutilated body was found a few miles from the John Doe unearthed in 1994. Conahan was linked to other murders and was convicted and sentenced to death for one of them in 1999. He remains at the Union Correctional Institution in Raiford, Florida.
The Charlotte County Cold Case Unit is determined to find out who John Doe is and whether his death could be linked to Conahan.
“A team went back and found what they believed to be rope marks or some sort of marks on the trees near where this body was found,” Gandy said, “and that was Daniel Conahan’s MO (modus operandi), to use bondage and to tie his victims to trees under the ruse of being photographed in the nude for his sexual pleasure.
“They did find some marks that could have been made by ropes.”
Even though clues in the woods appear to point to Conahan, however, detectives first have to identify the remains recovered 25 years ago. They’re hoping new information, along with new technology, will turn the tide.
“My thought is always fresh eyes can add something,” said Florida Gulf Coast University forensic anthropologist Heather Walsh.
Charlotte Cold Case detectives brought John Doe’s remains to Walsh, who examined the bones.
She estimates he’s a 25- to 45-year-old white or Hispanic man, between 5 feet, 5 inches and 5 feet, 9 inches between 125 to 175 pounds. He also had healed fractures in his face and what looks like a pin in his left leg from another injury.
Cold Case detectives took her detailed examination and John Doe’s skull to the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office.
There, expert forensic imaging specialist Paul Moody will create a high-tech image of his face.
“In the old days,” said Mike Vogel, a detective with the Charlotte County Cold Case Unit, “they would use clay and kind of put clay all over the skull and try and come up with features and a facial reconstruction using that, but they found obviously with the new technology you get a better reconstruction and a better idea of what the individual may have looked like.”
That technology zeros in on specific areas of the skull. Markers serve as a guide to create a face. The better the image, the better chance for recognition.
“When we get that, we may be able to identify him,” said Gandy. “If we can identify him, we’ll go back and try to associate him with Daniel Conahan, or anyone else that may have been responsible.
“If that happens, then you know it’s climbing a ladder that may put us closer to being able to solve the case … maybe.”
Moody has been involved in this work for about 16 years. He is one of only about 29 forensic artists in the world.
“What we do is review all the paperwork in the case, and everything we can possibly get our hands on, usually crime scene photos,” said Moody. “And especially if the skull went through a forensic anthropologist, we need that report. So we’ll review all that paperwork first before we even take a look at [the skull].”
Moody says 3-D imaging is next on the horizon for this kind of technology and the Palm Beach Sheriff’s Office is expected to start using that in the coming months.
If anyone fits the description of the John Doe or someone you know vanished during that period, Charlotte County Cold Case detectives want to hear from you.