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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.
Identifying 1984 Homicide Victim is Game-Changer for Investigation | Mike DaSilva, WHOtv.com
Airdate June 2, 2017
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.
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
Story by Aaron Brilbeck, WHO-TV Channel 13, Des Moines
November 4, 2010
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.
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.
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.
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 : 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 : 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 : 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 : 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 : 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 : 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 : 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|
Anyone with information about John Clifton Downey’s unsolved homicide is urged to call Des Moines Police at (515) 283-4811.