Medical Examiner’s Office determines identity of man in 2002 cold case

The Medical Examiner’s Office recently identified James Orin Johnson Sr. as the unidentified person found in Ridgefield on Jan. 13, 2002
Photos courtesy Clark Co. WA Communications

The Medical Examiner’s Office recently identified James Orin Johnson Sr. as the unidentified person found in Ridgefield on Jan. 13, 2002

VANCOUVER – The Clark County Medical Examiner’s Office has confirmed the identity of a man whose body was discovered 20 years ago. 

The Medical Examiner’s Office recently identified James Orin Johnson Sr. as the unidentified person found in Ridgefield on Jan. 13, 2002. Johnson was 32 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 two sisters born in Oregon in the mid-1800s and compiled a long list of people who were distantly related to the unidentified man.

Medical Examiner’s Office investigator Christine Holroyd spent months contacting potential family members to inquire about a possible missing male relative, carving out time to work on the cold case in between current cases. The rising number of deaths in Clark County has outpaced population growth and left investigators with less time to work on cold cases. From 2012 to 2021, the number of deaths investigated by the Medical Examiner’s Office increased by 59.5%, while the county’s population increased by 18.6%. 

In May, Medical Examiner’s Office operations manager Nikki Costa met with a descendant of the two sisters. Arlene Zumwalt agreed to provide DNA that could be used as a family reference sample that aided the investigation by determining which branch of the family tree to pursue. Bode forensic genealogists analyzed the results from the newly obtained family reference sample and in August indicated the unidentified man was very likely a biological son of Judith Cox Johnson. The forensic genealogists noted that her son James Orin Johnson appeared to have no traceable activities since mid-2001.

Costa tracked down the children and brother of James Johnson. His son Jaccob Johnson confirmed the family had not heard from his father in over 20 years. Candy Hallanger, former wife of James Johnson, hired a private investigator in 2003 to try to find her children’s missing father. But for two decades, Johnson’s brother Robert Johnson and the rest of the family have been wondering about the whereabouts of their loved one. 

The family was eager to confirm Johnson’s identity and offered to assist in the investigation. Another of Johnson’s sons, James Johnson Jr., uploaded his DNA profile to GEDmatch. GEDmatch is a DNA site that allows people to upload their genetic profiles from other testing companies for comparison and allows users to opt-in to law enforcement searches when investigating genetic genealogy cases. Johnson Jr. had previously tested with another genealogy company that does not permit these types of investigative searches. 

Using autosomal DNA, Bode forensic genealogists determined that the two samples matched in a parent/child relationship as expected. Clark County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Martha Burt concurred that the forensic genealogical analysis, in conjunction with the circumstantial evidence, proved the previously unidentified man was James Orin Johnson Sr. 

“This great work by our team helped to provide a family with answers they had been waiting 20 years to receive,” Burt said. “The Medical Examiner’s Office is committed to finding the names of all unidentified decedents in Clark County.”

On Sept. 17, Costa met with Johnson’s family – son Jaccob and his wife, Kathryn, daughter Catreena Johnson, and former wife Candy – to walk through the investigation that led to Johnson’s identification. 

“This was one of the most rewarding experiences of my career,” Costa said. “Jaccob gave me a hug that communicated so much. I will remember it for the rest of my days.”

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. 

Information provided by Clark Co. WA Communications.

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