Identifying 1984 Homicide Victim is Game-Changer for Investigation

DES MOINES, Iowa -- A cold case has been busted wide open; a Des Moines homicide victim from decades ago has been identified. The FBI national database for fingerprints played a key role in connecting the dots.

In February of 1984, the largely-decomposed remains of a man were found beneath some brush along a trail near East 24th St. and Scott Avenue in Des Moines.

"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."

What police did have to work with were some distinctive tattoos found on the homicide victim's remains.

"With this case in particular, what I found so unusual is that someone with that many tattoos, very specific tattoos, that someone had not come forward earlier and said, you know, this is my brother or my husband or someone," said Jody Ewing, founder and president of Iowa Cold Cases.

"Surely this man had relatives somewhere," said Ewing. "Everyone has family, and I'm just wondering why someone did not come forward before to report him missing."

While that may sound surprising, police say because information was shared very differently back then, it's understandable.

"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."

In the end, it was a fingerprint that made the difference in identifying the victim as 39-year-old John Clifton Downey.

"This is one of the reasons I think it is crucial for these organizations to work together and...with the FBI and NamUS, it's amazing what can happen when these organizations are willing to share information," said Ewing.

The Polk County Medical Examiner's Office was able to find next of kin in another state. They have been notified of the death and have confirmed the distinctive tattoos. The Des Moines Police Department is continuing the investigation into the homicide.