/ Articles / Detective hoping to identify victim of 40-year-old cold case

Detective hoping to identify victim of 40-year-old cold case

Identifying man found off snowmobile trail may bring closure

April 17, 2020 by Jamie Taylor

On March 19, 1980 a local couple discovered the remains of adult male while hiking along a private snowmobile trail four miles north of Rhinelander on Highway 17. Four decades later, the body still has not been identified.

Oneida County Sheriff’s detective sergeant Brian Barbour has dusted off the file and is hoping to determine once and for all who this man was.

“It is something that I have been following up on, basically cleaning up an old case file,” Barbour said. “So we have been looking into it with the goal of potentially being able to identify this guy.”

When asked if a cause of death for the man was ever determined, Barbour wasn’t sure if that information could be released. 

However, foul play was not suspected, according to news coverage of the case in March 1980.

The discovery of the John Doe was a big news story at the time, with all the details appearing on the front page of the Rhinelander Daily News. Barbour said the media at the time published information that wouldn’t be released by detectives now.

“A lot of stuff was out there,” Barbour said. “I looked at a couple different articles and it’s all there.”

Barbour provided a copy of the Daily News article from the day after the body was found to illustrate his point.

The article was accompanied by a photo of five members of the Oneida County’s Sheriff’s department carrying the tarp-wrapped body from where it was discovered to a waiting vehicle. 

“The body, that of a white male, believed to be between 25-35 years of age, was discovered about 2 p.m. by a rural Rhinelander couple as they were walking along their private snowmobile trail,” the unbylined story reads. “The body was about 50 yards off the trail and about 100 feet from Highway 17 North.”

In the article, Oneida County sheriff’s investigator Raymond Zastrow said the body was being taken to the State Crime Laboratory for an autopsy. When the autopsy would be performed the sheriff didn’t know. 

Zastrow also told the reporter back then the body “was found lying face up, had been there ‘for a while,’ possibly since January.”

No tracks or other evidence were found near the body.

Zastrow offered an explanation as to how the man got where he were found. 

“Zastrow theorizes that the victim may have walked off the road to relieve himself and fell down or sat down,” the article said.

The article gave the following description of the man: “dark brown hair and sideburns, thin build, about 5-foot-10 to 6-foot-one and weighing between 160 and 180 pounds.”

The article went into exhaustive detail on what the man was wearing and had on him.

“The victim was wearing a multicolor plaid shirt, black corduroy plants (sic), a light earmuffs, a scarf, and shoes and socks. Zastrow said the man’s wallet contained some cash, two keys, and a calendar from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. The wallet contained no identification. Zastrow said the victim was also carrying a compass, facial tissue and a comb, and was wearing a watch.”

The sheriff’s department sent out a statewide bulletin to all law enforcement agencies via teletype, later adding a nationwide bulletin seeking to match a missing person to the John Doe.

Barbour said investigators at the time followed up on several responses to those bulletins, but none of them panned out.

“They tried to follow up on a lot of different folks that were missing, and there was a lot of nothing, they got nothing,” Barbour said. “There were some close things that they tried to prepare at the time, and they came up empty handed.”

He said this is one of the oldest cold case in sheriff’s department files.

“As far as one where a body was located, this is the oldest one,” Barbour said. 

But the sheriff’s department was never able to provide an I.D. to go with the body.

“We have not been able to, that’s open-ended,” Barbour said, adding the investigation is once again on pause.

“We have some plans to move forward on doing some things on that case, but everything is kind of at a standstill right now what with our national health concerns,” Barbour said. “No non-essential investigations, so that’s where it’s kind of at right now.”

Barbour said without the COVID-19 pandemic, he might have had something more definitive in the case.

“If I were to rewind about three weeks, if I were to talk to someone then, I would have said hopefully in the next four to six weeks, we’ll have some information to the media about this,” Barbour said. “But that timeline has been pushed back, so ...”

An identification of the man may bring some closure, even after 40 years.

“That is the ultimate goal, to maybe give somebody closure,” Barbour said. “Maybe there is nobody to give closure to right now, who knows, with as much time that has passed?” he added.

Anyone with any information about this case is asked to contact Barbour at 715-361-5100.

Jamie Taylor may be reached via email at [email protected]

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