John Clifton Downey (Courtesy photo: Special to the Register)
This undated photo provided by the Downey family shows John Downey posing for a photo at the Leavenworth, Kan. U.S. Penitentiary. A new FBI technique for identifying bodies using low-quality fingerprints enabled authorities to identify human remains found in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1984, as those of Downey.

Unidentified White Male, Des Moines

UPDATE — Homicide Victim Identified After 33 Years

Name: John Clifton Downey, 39

On Feb. 28, 1984, the decomposing remains of a white male were found beneath some brush along a Des Moines trail near East 24th Street and Scott Avenue on the city’s east side. The man, presumed to be 28 to 48 years old, had numerous tattoos on his body, but remained unidentified for more than three decades.

In early June 2017, WHO-TV Channel 13 in Des Moines reported the case was “busted wide open” when the FBI’s national database for fingerprints connected the dots and identified as the victim as 39-year-old John Clifton Downey of Texas.

“There was essentially no forensic evidence at the scene, no witnesses,” said Sgt. Paul Parizek, Public Information Officer for the Des Moines Police Department. “We didn’t have a missing persons report…we had nothing. So, it stalled pretty quickly.”

The victim was out of state so his family members didn’t see images of the tattoos published in Iowa papers.

Parizek said information was also shared very differently back then and social media didn’t yet exist. Thirty-three years later, new fingerprint technology helped make the identification possible and plays a large role in swiftly identifying other victims.

“You know, you can’t discount today the number of people we reach through social media and through our handheld devices,” said Sgt. Parizek. “So yeah, had this been back then, maybe we might have touched somebody that recognized those tattoos.”

Former WHOtv reporter Aaron Brilbeck profiled the unidentified man’s unsolved case in November 2010 as part of the weekly “Cold Case Thursdays” series — a partnership with Iowa Cold Cases (ICC) that featured unsolved cases around the state. Less than seven years later, a partnership between the FBI and NamUs (National Missing and Unidentified Persons System), made it possible to solve the victim’s identity.

The Polk County Medical Examiner’s Office said they received a call from the FBI’s Latent Print Unit saying a new fingerprint identification technique made a positive match of the victim to Downey, and the Medical Examiner’s Office was able to find next of kin in another state. Relatives confirmed Downey’s distinctive tattoos.

The Des Moines Police Department continues its investigation into the homicide.

About John Clifton Downey

John Clifton Downey was born Oct. 3, 1944, in Harris County, Texas, to Robert Elroy and Una Doris (Owen) Downey.

He married Connie Jean on April 5, 1963, and the couple divorced five years later on June 12, 1968.

His body was found along a dirt trail in Des Moines, Iowa, on Feb. 28, 1984, and though he remained unidentified for 33 years, officials believe the time of death was some time in late 1983.

He was identified as Texas native John Clifton Downey on Thursday, June 1, 2017, after the FBI’s Latent Print Unit, through the help of NamUs, made a positive match of the victim to Downey.

Case Summary information as originally published

Description: Unidentified white male, 28-48 years of age, 5’7″ to 5’9″, approximately 150 lbs., brown hair, medium build, right handed, two surgical pins (washers) implanted in right knee. The lateral meniscus is not identified.

Date Found: February 28, 1984

Details: Skeletal remains found in brushy area along a dirt trail in Des Moines, Iowa.

Clothing: Faded blue denims with 31″ waist, a 30-1/2-inch inseam (not counting the up-turned 1 inch cuff), dark brown, wide leather belt with a metal buckle, brown socks, low cut TRAX brand sneakers, brown suede and blue nylon.

Possessions: Plastic comb, plastic Copenhagen brand snuff box, and a metal pocket knife.

Cause of Death: Blunt trauma

Probable Year of Death: 1983 to 1984

ME/C Case Number: 84-0162 DOE

Agency: Polk County Medical Examiner’s Office – 515-286-2102

Previously …

Cold Case: Officials Hope to Identify Man by Tattoos

Story by Aaron Brilbeck, WHO-TV Channel 13, Des Moines
November 4, 2010

Aaron Brilbeck at crime sceneCourtesy photo WHO-TV, Des Moines
Channel 13’s Aaron Brilbeck stands near the area where the body’s remains were found.

DES MOINES — It’s been nearly 27 years since police found the badly decomposed body of a man in a watery area on the southeast side of town. Still, Des Moines police are no closer to figuring out who the man is or what happened to him.

On February 28, 1984, the remains were found in a wooded area just north of Maury Street near Scott, partially submerged in the water. The body’s condition led police to believe it may have been there since spring of 1983.

“(The) body was found and appeared to be kind of on its side in sort of a fetal position type, wearing nothing but blue jeans, a belt and tennis shoes,” said Des Moines Police Sergeant Jeff Edwards.

Wooded area where remains foundCourtesy photo WHO-TV, Des Moines
The unidentified man’s remains were found in this wooded area partially submerged in water. Police believe the body may have been there since spring 1983.

The body did show signs of trauma and some broken ribs, but police are not sure of a cause of death or whether it was accidental, natural or murder.

“The suspicion is that the body had been [there] for some time,” Edwards said. “Probably, at least at some point, the body was partially submerged which did deteriorate the body considerably so that what was discovered in February — the remains were mostly just bones and just a small patch of skin.”

That small patch of skin may hold the clues to solving this case. The man, who police say was white with brown hair and stood about 5-foot-8, had several tattoos.

Sgt. Jeff EdwardsCourtesy photo WHO-TV, Des Moines
Sgt. Jeff Edwards, Des Moines Police Department

On the victim’s right arm, there was a tattoo of a red flying bird carrying a streamer that said “MOTHER.” The word “DAD” is above the bird. Also on the right arm was a tattoo of a Nazi storm-trooper wearing a German helmet. The face under helmet is skull-like.

A third tattoo on the right bicep shows a laughing skull with a top hat and cigarette with the words Born To Die” encircling the design.

On the right side of the chest there was a profile of a woman with a gear with a wrench through it for an earring.

Near the center of the chest, a spotted snake appears to be coiled around a tree.

WHO-TV Channel 13’s Aaron Brilbeck reports on the unidentified body of a white male found in Des Moines
on February 28, 1984. Air date: November 4, 2010

“It’s been very difficult in going back now with this particular person because we don’t have a missing person that we can match up to the body that was recovered or to the remains recovered,” Edwards said. “We don’t have any identification. Nothing. Very little in the way of identifying marks other than the tattoos.”

The spot where the body was found is well known to police. It’s so remote, meth producers often cook drugs there and car thieves will ditch stolen vehicles.

Investigators say it’s important to identify the remains to give a family, somewhere, some closure and possibly get a killer off the streets.

“Whoever they are and whoever this person is, they deserve to know what happened to their loved one,” said Edwards. “And obviously, if it does turn out that it’s a homicide, we have someone out there that’s committed a homicide. We need to bring that person to justice.”

Anyone with information about the body is asked to call Des Moines Police at 515-283-4811 or the Polk County Medical Examiner’s Office at 515-286-2102.

Fingerprint information is available and entered.

Dental information / charting is available and entered.

Tattoos Found on the Remains

Location of the tattoos on victim

An unidentified white male and the tattoo locations on his body


















Right Arm Side Profile Tattoo

Right Arm Side Profile

Right Front Profile

Right Rear Profile Tattoo

Right Rear Profile










Tattoo 1

Tattoo 1

Tattoo 1 : Flying bird carrying streamer in its beak. Written inside streamer is “MOTHER”. The word “DAD” is above bird. The bird is in red-orange ink. Back of streamer is in green ink. Located right upper-arm near shoulder-tip. Dimensions: Approximately 3 inches from “DAD” to bottom of streamer. Approximately 2 1/2 inches from beak to tail.

Tattoo 2

Tattoo 2

Tattoo 2 : Nazi storm-trooper. Wearing German Helmet, iron cross, SS on collar tabs. Face under helmet is skull-like. Has appearance of wearing leather coat. Dark-colored ink. Located on side and extending to rear of right upper-arm. Dimensions: approximately 6 inches tall by 3 inches wide. Runs parallel to tattoos three and four.

Tattoo 3

Tattoo 3

Tattoo 3 : Laughing skull with top-hat and cigarette. The words “BORN TO DIE” encircling design. Red ink inside eyes. Green ink inside nose. Located on right arm/inside bicep. Approximately 1/2 inch above tattoo no. four. Total size approximately 1 3/4 inches wide at brim of hat by 2 inches long.

Tattoo 4

Tattoo 4

Tattoo 4 : Female face with dark hair under a sombrero. Fancy design on brim of sombrero. It’s believed that the sombrero was put on after the female’s features were tattooed. An additional tattoo of “JOHN” is visible under the design inside the sombrero brim. From top of hat to chin of female face is approximately 2 1/2 inches. The brim of the sombrero is approximately 2 1/4 inches wide. Located inner-arm approximately 3 1/2 inches. Located inner-arm approximately 3 1/2 inches from elbow joint. (right side) Approximately 1/2 inch below the skull in top-hat design.

Tattoo 5

Tattoo 5

Tattoo 5 : Female facial-profile/left side. Located on right side of chest above nipple. Tattooed so that female’s hair appears light-colored. NOTE: A distinctive feature is that female has a “gear” with a wrench through it for an earring. Dimensions: Tattoo would take up most of subject’s right breast-area.

Tattoo 6

Tattoo 6

Tattoo 6 : Appears to be a spotted snake coiled around a tree. Dark ink. Located in middle of chest; along the sternum, from the xiphoid process to the angle. Majority of this tattoo is indistinguishable due to skin deterioration.

Tattoo 7

Tattoo 7

Tattoo 7 : Dark-colored ink. No combination for colors. Believed that skin-section from abdominal area/right side between navel and chest. Approximate dimensions: (male cartoon figure minus head due to skin deterioration.) Toe to toe – 3 inches; sole to upper-chest – 3 3/4 inches.

Tattoo 8

Tattoo 8

Tattoo 8 : Dark-colored ink. No discernible color combinations. Butterfly pattern. Located on rear of right-side shoulder; towards collarbone area. Dimension: approximately 1 1/2 inches long. NOTE: No pattern distinguishable on rearward wing (possible due to skin deterioration).

The following people have been ruled out as being this decedent:

First Name Last Name Year of Birth State LKA
John Gosch 1969 Iowa
Mitchell Hein 1960  
Eugene Martin 1970  
Kenneth O’Neil 1938  
David Widner 1963  
Information Needed

Anyone with information about John Clifton Downey’s unsolved homicide is urged to call Des Moines Police at (515) 283-4811.


37 Responses to Unidentified White Male, Des Moines, 2-28-84

  1. Margaret says:

    Is there any info on his life? Why was he in iowa, so far from home? Girlfriends, enemies, etc.?

  2. anon says:

    Mr. Downey was convicted of forgery in 1962 in Texas. I wonder what the story was.

  3. Vesta Stammer says:

    This is amazing! This poor soul has been identified, and family member(s) have FINALLY been notified. :-) After this many years, may there be many hearts happy – no matter if he was known by them, or if seriously disheartened by this man’s terrible death (like myself). :-( God’s sweet angels work in very mysterious ways and forms. Blessings to Mr. Downey’s family and all whose lives he touched.

  4. Tristan says:

    Is there a facial reconstruction? A case was solved here in kentucky from the 60s by cross ref. A bunch of stuff.

  5. Or they know, and not talking. I don’t understand how people could do that. Sad.

  6. Mystery addict says:

    I posted links on craigslist in California. I just felt like someone who lives there would be able to identify any affiliation with his tattoos.

  7. I’ve seen this case before. You’d think someone literally covered with so many unusual tattoos would have been identified by now!

  8. I know it’s been years, I do pray someone comes forward. So the families can find peace. My heart and thoughts and prayers sent to the families and friends.

  9. Lisa Carlson says:

    My first question is, do these black and white drawings of the tattoos have photographs to match somewhere? Most cold cases this old allow actual photos of tattoos to be shown on a lot of the stories I’ve seen. Perspective and perception are relative to the person who is describing something as well, so their description could mean a million things to them that wouldn’t mean anything or be seen the same by others. Allowing real photos of the tats to be viewed could reveal countless things to the public that hadn’t been considered before, such as that woman with the Sombrero that we are told has a tattoo that says JOHN under it, I thought it said Joan, a woman’s name would be much more likely to be tattooed on a man than a mans name would. Men who tattoo their own name on themselves usually don’t do it in that spot and also they would more likely cover an old girlfriends name with a woman’s image. The skull with born to die and red eyes/green nose as well as that death Nazi are both Russian drug mafia tattoos from the early 80’s era- you do see these on white supremacist’s Aryan gangs, but they wouldn’t tattoo a Mexican woman on their body-no way. There has to be a much better chance of solving this if a relative or acquaintance of the victim could see actual photos instead of drawings. We need more information included in the stories, because if the Iowa DCI or DMPD or Polk County Coroner’s Office-who ever processed the scene on this case-needs to release photos if they have them. They have dental clues and they have surgical pin in his knee. What kind of surgery does this indicate? What dental work was done? Vague information like this isn’t going to bring much help from the public. They could show photos of the knife, and the belt too, both are listed as possessions on DCI.

  10. andrea says:

    Has the white supremacist angle been looked at? Given the nazi stormtrooper tattoo it seems like he must have been a white supremacist.

    • Lisa Carlson says:

      A white Supremacist would never tattoo a Hispanic woman or image on their body. That doesn’t fit at all. These are more likely tattoos of a repeat criminal in and out of prison, they look like random bad decisions in the drawings, wish we could see photos.

      • Jimmy says:

        John was my uncle. You’re correct that he had been in an out of prison until his death. His tattoos were mostly prison tattoos.

  11. Genea Sporer says:

    I wonder if he was left handed and did the tats himself, seems like a lot of them all on one side.

  12. They don’t look like prison tats. Prisons do, however keep really good data on prisoners tats. It may be a good place to look for tattoo data.

    • Lisa Carlson says:

      It was 1983/84. Not too many records from prisons for tattoos yet, but they may have taken some of him if he was arrested somewhere…. I think everyone who is assuming this man was incarcerated is jumping to too many conclusions. Lots of assumptions on this site. It’s best to start at facts and work from there to find things that support that fact. We don’t know many facts about this case at all.

  13. Those are not prison tats…not all of them… Not even most of them.

    • Lisa Carlson says:

      Without seeing photos of the tats, I have to agree with you. If these are true versions of the tats, then I think he had most of them done by someone that used him for practice/random bad decisions. One was likely done by a tattoo shop using a stencil-the old school flash-the bird/banner with MOM and DAD on it. The butterfly on any dude is weird back then, especially on his back shoulder, my guess is probably a girl talked him into doing that somehow.

  14. Mandie El says:

    There prison tats no color n they look homemade.

  15. Eddi Stearns says:

    I can’t believe that someone doesn’t recognize this guy especially with all the tattoos? I mean in 1983 there couldn’t have been a lot of people who were “covered” in them. :/

  16. Joshua Brown says:

    Ether biker tats, military or prison. Very sad there are so many.

    • Tristan says:

      I’m thinking military. With the types of tatts and the pins in his knee. I feel gang or prison member wouldn’t bother with the surgery. He could of been injured serving.
      He could of also been in foster care since he was a child and may not have anyone who misses him.
      Its sad really.

  17. Debbie Henry says:

    shared, hope you find out who he is..

  18. Don Thomas says:

    Between the tats, pin, and dental records or DNA you would think this one would have been solved long time ago.

    • Jody Ewing says:

      Mike, Vesta and Don, I also would have thought someone would have stepped forward to identify this man a long time ago, especially given the tattoos and surgical pin. The only info we have, however, is what has been released by the Iowa Department of Public Safety. This person’s page is on their site here. I’ve often wondered if the victim wasn’t from out of state, where family members may only be searching the home state’s databases.

      It’s a rare instance when someone doesn’t have at least one surviving family member somewhere — a mother, father, brother, sister, spouse or ex-spouse or child — and most families seldom give up searching for lost loved ones. This case leaves all kinds of unanswered questions.

  19. Vesta says:

    The pin in his leg might give a clue also. I don’t know why, but the first thing I thought when I first read this was that he could be a Vietnam veteran.

    • Lisa Carlson says:

      That was my first thought, that his approx age at that time could be a Viet Nam vet, and they still have his unclaimed remains so they do have his DNA, in 1984 very little DNA was being taken from criminals in the U.S.A. to be used for NCIC database yet so even if he had been incarcerated they wouldn’t have taken his DNA. Most states started around 1992 and the first case to ever use DNA to convict anyone wasn’t until 1987.

  20. Mike says:

    I wonder if the cops took DNA samples.I’m guessing with all of them tatooo’s he had done time somewhere and theres a good chance that his DNA is on file.

  21. Theresa says:

    I suspect this individual was an inmate at some point. “Borne To Die” would then be indicative of a drug addiction. Possibly incarcerated in a Mexican prison due to the woman in a sombrero, very popular down their. Birds generally meaning a wish to be free. Hispanic gangs of the southwest have grim reaper tat along with sinister faced clown tat. Possibly San Quentin, Folsom or Soledad. Check Pocoima.

    • Maria says:

      If he had been in jail/prison,(at least in U.S.) photographs would have been taken of his tats. With the recent “Identify The Missing” events going on in various cities/counties(families submitting DNA samples in hopes of finding their missing family member) maybe he’ll be identified. : / This one, and the USMC Doe (featured on should get national media exposure. These unidentified/unclaimed John/Jane Does need to be ID’d and returned to their families, if still have.

  22. kelly says:

    Since no one can identify him from all of those tattoos, it would lead me to believe that he was not from anywhere around here.

    • Deek Richards says:

      I concur, Kelly. I’ve been following this case for years and am shocked he has still not been identified. Someone has to remember doing those tats or remember the man having them! As I stated above, I think this is going to have go national so that everyone in the US see’s it. Then perhaps, we’ll get an ID or at least a tip on this poor man’s ID.

      I also agree with Theresa’s comment below. He certainly may have spent time incarcerated and if so, it may have been somewhere in the SW US or California as she suggested. I would check out Phoenix and the AZ area as well as CA, NM, TX and Mexico.

      This makes me so sad. He is someones loved one and someones son. I hope we can get him ID’d soon. It’s been much too long as it is and we have to also remember, tats like these were not at all common when this man was found in the mid 1980’s. Now everyone has them but back then, hardly anyone did.

  23. Tim Wood says:

    It’s unreal how no one has come forward with anything on this man. with all those tattoos especially. You mean to tell me no one remembers or knows someone who had those tattoos. I have two and everyone I know knows I have them. so sad…..

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