Clark County Medical Examiner’s Office identifies man in 1998 cold case

VANCOUVER, Wash. – The Clark County Medical Examiner’s Office has identified a body found 24 years ago in the Columbia River near Vancouver, Washington, as that of a missing California man.

Investigators determined the remains found Oct. 26, 1998, in the river near Northwest Lower River Road were that of Michael E. Johnson. The medical examiner’s office estimates he was about 53 years old at the time of his death, according to a Tuesday news release.

Johnson’s cause of death was a gunshot wound to the head, the medical examiner’s office said. His manner of death is undetermined.

According to Columbian archives, when the unidentified body was found, it was badly decomposed; officials believed the body had been in the water six months to a year. Law enforcement officers were unaware of any missing people from the area to whom the remains could have belonged and notified agencies around the Northwest. Authorities said at the time fingerprint identification was impossible, and the remains could have come from upriver.

The medical examiner’s office sent a DNA sample from the remains to Bode Technology, a forensic DNA laboratory in Virginia. Once forensic genealogists determined the remains’ ancestry, they compared that with online genealogy databases. Genealogists found an ancestral link to a family in California. From there, they identified a son of Chesley Johnson Jr. and Ruth Marie Hansen, who had no traceable activities since 1998, the news release states.

People encouraged to upload DNA

The Clark County Medical Examiner’s Office encourages people to upload their DNA profiles to genealogy programs, such as GEDmatch and FamilyTreeDNA, and opt in to public searches. The agency said doing this can help investigators match DNA to unidentified remains, provide closure to families and help law enforcement identify suspects of violent crime.

In October, Nikki Costa, operations manager for the medical examiner’s office, contacted other children of the California couple identified by genealogists. Russel Johnson and Kathy Bergen told them their brother, Michael Johnson, had left California with no contact with the family in more than 20 years, the news release states.

Over several months, Costa reached out to various agencies to investigate the possibility of the remains being those of Michael Johnson.

The California Department of Justice Missing Persons DNA Program analyzed family reference samples to compare with the Clark County remains. The Wasatch County Sheriff’s Office in Heber City, Utah, collected a sample from Bergen and submitted it to the California program.

The University of North Texas Center for Human Identification, which the medical examiner’s office said developed the initial DNA profile of the unidentified man in 2008, submitted his profile to the program, too.

Clark County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Martha Burt concluded the remains did belong to Johnson, according to the news release.

Johnson’s identification is the second time in four months the medical examiner’s office announced the closure of a decades-old cold case.

Law enforcement does not have any information about Johnson’s death and asks anyone with information to contact Vancouver police’s Major Crimes Unit Sgt. Patrick Moore at 360-487-7440.