Medical Examiner’s Office determines identity of man in 1998 cold case

Michael Johnson photographed with his partner, Joyce, in the 1990s. Photo courtesy Kathy Bergen
Michael Johnson photographed with his partner, Joyce, in the 1990s. Photo courtesy Kathy Bergen

The Medical Examiner’s Office recently identified Michael E. Johnson as the unidentified person found on Oct. 26,1998 in the Columbia River in Vancouver

VANCOUVER – The Clark County Medical Examiner’s Office used forensic genealogy to confirm the identity of a man whose body was discovered 24 years ago in the Columbia River. This is the second cold case in four months that the office has closed using forensic genealogy. 

The Medical Examiner’s Office recently identified Michael E. Johnson as the unidentified person found on Oct. 26,1998 in the Columbia River in Vancouver. The Medical Examiner’s Office estimates Johnson was about 53 years old at the time of his death. 

The Medical Examiner’s Office submitted a DNA sample from the remains to Bode Technology, a forensic DNA laboratory in Virginia that provides forensic genealogy services and specializes in the extraction of DNA from challenging human remains samples. The forensic genealogist used the DNA from the remains to predict the unidentified person’s ancestry and compared it to individuals in online genealogy databases that allow searches of unidentified persons. The forensic genealogist found an ancestral link to a family from California. While there were multiple possibilities, the forensic genealogist noted that one person, a son of Chesley Johnson Jr. and Ruth Marie Hansen, appeared to have no traceable activities since 1998.

In October, Medical Examiner’s Office operations manager Nikki Costa contacted other children of the couple. Russel Johnson and Kathy Bergen indicated their brother, Michael E. Johnson, had left California over 20 years ago and had no contact with family. 

Over the next several months, Costa reached out to other agencies for assistance as she pursued the lead. Since Johnson was missing from California, the California Department of Justice Missing Persons DNA Program provided analysis of family reference samples for comparison to the unidentified male in Clark County. The Wasatch County Sheriff’s Office in Heber City, Utah, collected a DNA sample from Johnson’s sister, Kathy Bergen, and submitted the family reference sample to California’s missing persons program. And the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification, which developed the initial DNA profile of the unidentified male in 2008, sent its DNA profile to California’s missing persons program for comparison. 

Based on the results of the forensic genealogical analysis, DNA analysis and circumstantial evidence in the case, Clark County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Martha Burt concluded that the previously unidentified man was Michael E. Johnson.

Johnson’s cause of death is a gunshot wound to the head and his manner of death is undetermined. Law enforcement has no information on Johnson’s activities or travels leading up to the recovery of his body floating in the Columbia River near Lower River Road. Anyone with information about Johnson can contact Vancouver Police Department Major Crimes Unit Sgt. Patrick Moore at 360.487.7440.

Costa credits her diligent work to close this and other cold cases to her friend Dr. Katherine Taylor, Washington state forensic anthropologist who died of metastatic breast cancer in 2021.

“She mentored me and ignited a passion in me to give the unidentified their names back,” Costa said.

Additional information

GEDmatch and FamilyTree DNA are the only public genealogical databases that allow users to opt-in to database searches by law enforcement and those working to identify unidentified remains. These databases are a powerful tool to help law enforcement, medical examiners and other investigators resolve unidentified person cases and find leads in criminal investigations. 

The Medical Examiner’s Office encourages people to consider uploading their DNA profiles from other direct-to-consumer genealogy companies and opting-in to public searches. Doing so can help bring names to the unidentified, provide closure to their families, and help law enforcement identify perpetrators of violent crime. Both FamilyTreeDNA and GEDmatch allow users to upload their profiles from other companies for free. Find more information on the GEDmatch and FamilyTreeDNA websites. 


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