They ordered a casket. They called a chaplain. And they bowed their heads in prayer for the man dubbed “John Doe.”
Three years after an unknown man was found dead in a railroad shed in Rosemount, he was buried Friday in the presence of a community of strangers captivated by his mysterious story and moved by the poignancy of his solitary passing.
“How could this happen? It’s hard to imagine how this man could go so long and no one knows him,” Hastings chaplain Gordon Gathright said. “This celebration of John Doe’s life reminds us: People matter.”
No one claimed the man as their own, so the community did — from the chief of the Rosemount Police Department, which scrounged for clues to his identity, to investigators with the Hennepin County medical examiner’s office, who chased hundreds of leads.
A grave digger, staffers from a Hastings funeral home, investigators and a stranger touched by the unknown man’s obituary used ropes to lower the casket into the ground.
“These kind of cases leave that indelible mark on you over time because they are so rare,” said Shawn Wilson, operations manager for the medical examiner’s office, which does autopsies and death investigations for Dakota and Scott counties. “We know so much about him, yet we know nothing about him in life.”
Holding out hope
On a September day in 2014, a railroad worker noticed the door of a small railroad utility shed propped open. Inside, he found the body of a white man dressed in a black Wilson’s Leather motorcycle jacket, a striped button-down shirt, Wrangler cargo jeans and a dark leather belt with a knife sheath and the initials DHT.
The man was short and thickset, with long brown or gray hair, metal-framed glasses and a hoop earring. Investigators figured that he was between 30 and 50 years old and that he had likely died of natural causes maybe a year earlier, perhaps seeking shelter from the cold.
His boots were stuffed with newspapers — likely for insulation — that were dated October 2013. Police found a receipt from a Kwik Trip gas station and a bag of rotten apples. That’s where the trail of clues ended.
Authorities entered DNA and dental records in national databases, but found no match.
They probed 570 leads and missing-person cases, reports such as someone who hadn’t seen a friend in 20 years and a mother who didn’t know her son’s whereabouts. No match.
The FBI compiled facial reconstruction images and checked the case against 30 missing men from across the U.S. Police interviewed downtown Rosemount business owners to see if they recognized the man, while investigators pulled welfare records to see if anyone had become inactive around the time he had disappeared. No match.
For people whose work is rooted in science and certainty, the dead ends were frustrating. Even the manner and cause of death couldn’t be determined due to the length of time the man had been dead.
“We’ve run every lead into the ground,” Wilson said. “We were really holding out hope somewhere, somehow we’d get a break in the case. There’s just so many unanswered questions.”
The Hennepin County medical examiner’s office has had only two other unidentifiable bodies out of 72,000 cases since 2000.
The office receives dozens of unidentifiable bone fragments and skulls each year, but an unidentifiable body is unusual. The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension said there are about 70 unidentified people statewide.
State law requires counties to pay basic funeral expenses to bury or cremate those who die alone and destitute, or to provide those services for families who can’t afford a basic coffin and burial for a relative.
Hennepin County handles nearly 800 burials and cremations a year, spending $1.5 million in 2016. Dakota County, which paid for Friday’s funeral, spends about $230,000 a year.
“It’s not like I know him, but I want to,” said Raschael Ellering, a former investigator with the Hennepin County medical examiner’s office who weeded through missing-person cases and contacted families. “It will always be there until we know who he is.”
Ellering arrived at the funeral Friday with other investigators. If his family is found, she said, “They’ll know at least there were people here who cared.”
Seventeen people in all gathered on the sunny morning at Prairie Oaks Memorial Eco Gardens in Inver Grove Heights. Gathright led them in verses of “Amazing Grace,” and an investigator set a bouquet of red lilies on the casket.
“I didn’t want him to be alone,” Rosemount Police Chief Mitchell Scott said.
Neither did Dana Pettit of Hastings, who dropped off a July 4th-themed bouquet.
“I just can’t believe it happens in this day and age,” she said. “He’s someone’s son, brother or uncle.”
Her sister Dawn Wigness, also of Hastings, saw the obituary and decided she had to go because of the community support she had received when her 22-year-old son died in an accident.
“It’s probably one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen,” Pettit said. “Today, we’ll be his sisters.”
The plot will be marked with a flat stone that reads “Unidentified.” It will list the day his body was discovered.
“John Doe’s” obituary, absent the usual details listing interests and survivors, simply urges that his story serve as a reminder: Reach out to loved ones you haven’t talked to in a while. Talk to your neighbor. Get to know someone new.
“Their identity, personality, and story matters,” the obituary reads. “Let’s not let another person pass and not be identified.”