Episode 5: Rodney Johnson
Updated: Aug 22
The Lake Stickney John Doe has been a mystery since 1994 when his body was found underwater in Snohomish County. Authorities knew so little about him they couldn’t even be sure he was caucasian … and oddly enough his race would change several times throughout the years as Forensic Artists tried to ID him. DNA recently gave him his name back - it’s Rodney Johnson - but we still don't know how he ended up in that lake in the first place and who killed him? This is Washed Away.
The 7 of Hearts card below wasn't drawn by Natalie. She created the updated sketches in 2016 and 2019 that can be seen here.
In this episode we also talk about Precious Jane Doe who was ID'ed earlier this year, here's what she looked like in life and what Natalie thought she might have looked like. Other than the hair and eyebrows, I think she was spot on.
An important note: Tips in Rodney's case should be called in to the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office at 425-388-3845.
The Lake Stickney John Doe has been a mystery since 1994 when his body was found underwater in Snohomish County. Authorities knew so little about him then that they couldn’t even be sure he was caucasian … and oddly enough his race would change several times throughout the years as authorities tried to ID him. DNA recently gave him his name back - it’s Rodney Johnson - but we still don't know how he ended up in that lake in the first place and who killed him? This is Washed Away.
On June 11th, 1994 a man’s body was found in Lake Stickney, which located is in Washington State near Lynnwood and Everett. This man had been in the water long enough to make him completely unrecognizable - at least months if not years. Because he had been in the water so long, his skin had turned into something called Adipocere, also known as corpse wax. It’s a product of decomposition that turns body fat into kind of a sort of soap-like substance. Corpse wax forms through a process called saponification and tends to develop when body fat is exposed to anaerobic bacteria in a warm, damp environments like of course in a lake. Ashley:
But it was clear he had died of gunshot wounds to the head and that he had most likely been murdered and his body was disposed in this lake sometime after. At the time it was assumed that he was in his 20s when he died. He was probably about 5’11 and weighed at least 150 pounds. He was most likely white/caucasian but could have been mixed race. Again it was hard to tell. He wore Levi's jeans, size 10 1/2 work boots, and black socks. Unfortunately no fingerprints could be taken from his hands. The body couldn’t be matched to any missing persons reports at the time so authorities had a sketch created of what he possibly could have looked like in life and gave him the nickname Lake Stickney John Doe. He’d later become the 7 of hearts in a deck of cold case cards created by the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office and distributed to inmates in order to try and get new leads on unsolved homicides in the area. It’s honestly kind of a brilliant idea, honestly. But despite that creative approach - the Lake Stickney John Doe remained unidentified until now.
That was an interesting case and it went a long time. I'm glad they finally got this solved, though of course just the identification part is solved. Ashley:
That’s Natalie Murry. She’s a forensic artist out of the Texas area, but used to live here in Washington and she’s the person who creates the images you see of unidentified people in this state. You might remember she was who Forensic Anthropologist Dr. Kathy Taylor reached out to when she wanted to try something new with the Mary Anderson mystery. Natalie also worked on the Lake Stickney John Doe case... as well as another interesting case that was in the news not too long ago.
We recently, we got a hit on Precious Doe. And I was really pleased with that hit, with everything except for the eyes, but the nose, the mouth, jaw, the lower part of the face, the mid face. All of that I was really pleased with. The one thing that I did not like was the eyes and the eyebrows also don't make me happy. The literature that we have says to draw the eyebrows, following the upper edge of the orbital cavity, so just draw them right along the edge of where the eyes go. But that to me, I have noticed over the past several years, that is too high. It's always too high. My eyebrows are always too high. And so in the last couple of years on my drawings, I've been trying the eyebrows inside the orbital cavity because they're too high.
The Precious Jane Doe case was a really strange one. Her killer was caught and sentenced long before anyone could figure out who he had killed. In fact, he didn’t even know. But she was recently identified after 43 years as Elizabeth Ann Roberts from Roseburg, Oregon. Though she actually went by Lisa. She left home and was reported as a runaway in 1977 and sadly, her family never saw her again. Just two weeks after she left, she hitched a ride with the wrong person, a man named David Roth. Her body was found just south of Everett, Washington soon after. And because of the way she died, it was really hard to get her identified. Natalie gave her a face that’s honestly really close to what she actually looked like. It's impressive. And I was so curious to learn how she creates these images… I mean, where does she start? Natalie Murry:
I go down to the medical examiner's office and actually work with the skull itself. I examine the skull because what I'm looking for is what makes this skull different from every other skull. I want to see what I'm going to do on this face to make it stand out from every other face. I don't want it to look like every face. People are different. Your face is different and it makes sense that what your face sits on - the skull, the bone structure is different from every other bone structure. Nature's not perfect. Your face is not perfect. It's not the same on both sides. It's not symmetrical. And so a lot of times, maybe one of your nostrils is a little higher than the other. Maybe one of your eyes attaches a little higher than the other. On the other side, your mandible, your chin, maybe not even on both sides. Now, things are going to be a little different. And I want to see what's happening on this face, that, that I can show that maybe people don't necessarily see in life, but subconsciously they're going to recognize it as a trait that that person has. So that's what I'm looking at first on the skull, when I go into the M.E.'s office and I'll photograph that so that I can remember that. Ashley:
She mentioned not only taking photos but also using tissue depth markers that she makes with the rubber erasers of mechanical pencils. And that's to see where the soft tissue of the skin should lay on a skull. She then opens up the photos she took on her tablet at home and uses a program called Corel Painter to start drawing and painting a face. Natalie literally wrote the book on how to use that program and do what she does, it’s called Digital Forensic Art Techniques: A Professional’s Guide to Corel Painter and if you're curious, you can find it online with a quick search.
How do you decide on hair and eye color when you don't know? Like, is that something that you choose depending on how the face is kind of coming together? Or how do you go about that?
Well, artistic choice comes into things a lot in this because in the Northwest, we don't often get hair, when we have skeletal remains. When those are found out in the woods, often animals will take the hair. Birds can take the hair and use it in the nest. Animals will take the hair and use it in their burrows. And there's no hair found still with the skeletal remains. So I have nothing to go by and eye's obviously they're gone too. So we're taught as forensic artists to try and go with an eye color that's just kind of in the middle of somewhere, that is not too dark, not too light, unless you're going with someone of African derived or someone like Hispanic or anyone that might have very dark eyes where dark eyes would help show that this person is of that extraction. So in that case go with dark eyes. But other than that, go with kind of a medium eye that could be seen as lighter or darker. In regards to hair a lot of times I go with what looks right on the face to me. As I'm drawing the face, it starts to look individualized to me and I go with something that looks good to me. That looks right to me. And a lot of times, actually, most of the time, I'm not right, but to me it looks like it would fit with that person. And we're also taught here to go with what I guess would be called purposeful ambiguity. Ashley:
While hair and eye color can be really tough to predict in these cases, it’s amazing how much you actually can learn from the skull and the bones themselves. From whether someone had male or female anatomy to their race or derivation to even how much someone probably weighed…
A lot of times, if you have clothing found next to the, the remains that can give you a clue on, on whether somebody is, is large build or small build, average build, but in the Northwest, that's not going to happen by the time you find a skeletal remains, the clothing has rotted away. If it's a, a male, occasionally you'll find indication on the bone that we, a muscle structure was very robust. And that will give you an idea that this is a very large person, that the muscles actually pull on the bone of the skull and make the bone, uh, show you indications that there were large muscles that are pulling on the bone and you can see where the muscles attached. So, you know, that that was the large muscle that was carrying a lot of weight. Does that make sense to you?
Ashley: Yeah yeah I mean that's- it's wild to think about- that you can tell that much from bones.
Isn't it crazy? Yeah. You wouldn't think that bone would be that malleable, but there are things that actually make an impression on the bone. Ashley:
I loved being able to pick Natalie’s brain about her work as a forensic artist. I find that so fascinating. It’s such a unique and important job. I was shocked to find out that there are no full time artists working here in Washington and we might not have any forensic sketches if not for Natalie’s connection to the state. Even though she’s been doing this job for years and years - Natalie says she’s still learning new things and I guess the science and research around forensic art is constantly changing and evolving, so you never really know how close you are to capturing what someone might have looked like.
Natalie Murry: I don't personally myself, I don't see the resemblance, but it doesn't matter because that's not the idea. The idea is for somebody else to see it, know, it just, it takes the right person, seeing the drawing to get the ID. You know, it may not look like the right person to you or to me, but if someone else sees it and says, yeah, that could be my sister. That could be my friend. That could be someone that I'm missing that I haven't seen in awhile. That's the whole point of that drawing. You know, I can't draw somebody I've never seen. If you, if you pick up a skull, you can't draw someone and know exactly what is on the surface of their skin. You know, you're going to miss the moles. You're going to miss the scars. You're going to miss all the little things about that person. But if you get the basics down, the proportions are going to look right that so much about that face, it's going, gonna look correct that they'll, that they'll call and say, you know, it might be that person. It might be that person that I'm missing. And that's the whole point of it is to get people to call in and give the detectives something else to go on. When they've, when they've gotten to a place in their case where they have no other options, it's, it's a tool for the detectives. It's something to give them another place to go on a case where they have reached a dead end. And that's what forensic art is for.
As I mentioned earlier, Natalie did some drawings of the Lake Stickney John Doe. She didn’t create the original in the 90s, that was done by a Detective Palmer, but she was brought in in 2016 and 2019 to try something new. She actually recreated this John Doe as several different races to try and help finally get him ID’ed on the off chance that he wasn't white. She reimagined him as mixed race, black, and asian with slightly different ages and hairstyles. Really covering all the bases.
And I also kept the tooth detail because he had really unusual- I thought his teeth were very unusual. Sometimes people will have what's known as a diastema, a space between the top two front teeth. He's got diastemas between all of his bottom teeth so I showed that in the drawings because I thought people would recognize that. Your teeth are the only part of your skull that people see when you're alive and so people will recognize that. So if you have those, it's good to show those in a drawing.
But one thing it looks like she kept mostly the same was his eyes - they all look similar to me. And now that we know what he really looked like, I hope Natalie is happier with her work on the Lake Stickney John Doe’s eyes than she was with Precious Jane Doe’s eyes… because I think she really nailed that feature. Ashley:
Just a couple weeks ago, news broke that genetic genealogy had solved another identification mystery. The Lake Stickney John Doe was actually Rodney Peter Johnson, he was 25 years old. He worked at a Chinese restaurant in Ballard, which is actually the neighborhood I live in. He was white but could have been mistaken for mixed race as he was part Lummi. If you’re not familiar with the Lummi Nation, they are a Native American tribe and the original inhabitants of Washington's northernmost coast and some of southern British Columbia. All of that to say - that the original theories about what this guy looked like were actually pretty spot on.
The last time anyone saw Rodney alive was either in 1987 or 1988 but remember his body wasn’t found until 1994. That’s how long he might have been in that lake. He did have family and they did report him missing - twice even - in 1994 and 1996. But it’s possible that since he lived in Seattle and his body was found near Everett, that a connection just wasn’t made between the two. Or maybe something got lost in the almost decade of time between when he was last seen and when he was reported missing. Either way now at least his family finally knows what happened to him. What they don’t know however - is who killed him and why? Cold case detectives are trying to figure that out and they’re hoping that after all this time that someone might finally be ready to come forward. They’re especially curious about a girlfriend that Rodney had in the 80s and some camping trips they went on. Here are some other details about Rodney just in case they jog someone’s memory: Rodney went to high school in Darrington, WA. He was a foster child with several brothers and a half sister. He broke his left collarbone at some point. He had been arrested for burglary and assault. And at the time of his disappearance - he lived on NW 60th Street in Seattle. According to the Everett Herald, tips should be called in to the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office at 425-388-3845.
Washed Away is a Cosmic Bigfoot production. Huge thanks to Natalie Murry for talking to me about her work. You can see her composites and reconstructions at nataliemurry.com that’s spelled M U R R Y and of course I’ll link to her site in my show notes. You can find those as well as images, transcripts, sources, and more at washedawaypodcast.com - You can follow me on instagram and twitter @washedawaypod and if you’d like to help this podcast reach new ears please leave a rating or review on Apple. I’m Ashley Smith and I’ll have another episode for you very soon. Thanks for listening.