Pictured above is a clipping from the March 20, 1980 edition of the Daily News, predecessor of the River News. The photo shows Oneida County sheriff’s personnel removing an unidentified body from a wooded area near Highway 17. Forty years later, authorities are still trying to identify the man. Submitted photo.
3/31/2020 7:29:00 AM Detective hoping to identify victim
of 40-year-old cold case Identifying man found off snowmobile trail may bring closure
On March 19, 1980 a local couple disovered the remains of an adult male while hiking along a private snowmobile trail four miles north of Rhinelander on Highway 17. Four decades later, the body still has not been identified.
Oneida County Sheriff's detective sergeant Brian Barbour has dusted off the file and is hoping to determine once and for all who this man was.
"It is something that I have been following up on, basically cleaning up an old case file," Barbour said in a recent interview. "So we have been looking into it with the goal of potentially being able to identify this guy."
When asked if a cause of death for the man was ever determined, Barbour wasn't sure if that information could be released. However, foul play was not suspected, according to news coverage of the case in March 1980.
The discovery of the John Doe was a big news story at the time, with all of the details appearing on the front page of the Rhinelander Daily News, the predecessor of the River News.
Barbour said that the media at the time published information that wouldn't be released by detectives now.
"A lot of stuff was out there," Barbour said. "I looked at a couple different articles and it's all there."
Barbour provided a copy of the Daily News article from the day after the body was found to illustrate his point.
The article was accompanied by a photo of five members of the Oneida County's Sheriff's department carrying the tarp-wrapped body from where it was discovered to a waiting vehicle.
"The body, that of a white male, believed to be between 25-35 years of age, was discovered about 2 p.m. by a rural Rhinelander couple as they were walking along their private snowmobile trail," the unbylined story reads. "The body was about 50 yards off the trail and about 100 feet from Highway 17 North."
In the article, Oneida County sheriff's investigator Raymond Zastrow said the body was to be taken to the State Crime Laboratory for an autopsy.
Zastrow also told the reporter that the body "was found lying face up, had been there 'for a while,' possibly since January."
No tracks or other evidence were found near the body.
Zastrow offered an explanation as to how the man got to where he was found.
"Zastrow theorizes that the victim may have walked off the road to relieve himself and fell down or sat down," the article reads.
The article gave the following description of the man: "dark brown hair and sideburns, thin build, about 5-foot-10 to 6-foot-one and weighing between 160 and 180 pounds."
The article went into exhaustive detail on what the man was wearing and had on him.
"The victim was wearing a multicolor plaid shirt, black corduroy plants (sic), a light earmuffs, a scarf, and shoes and socks. Zastrow said the man's wallet contained some cash, two keys, and a calendar from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. The wallet contained no identification. Zastrow said the victim was also carrying a compass, facial tissue and a comb, and was wearing a watch," the article states.
The sheriff's department sent out a statewide bulletin to all law enforcement agencies via teletype, later adding a nationwide bulletin seeking to match a missing person to the John Doe.
Barbour said investigators at the time followed up on several responses to those bulletins, but none of them panned out.
"They tried to follow up on a lot of different folks that were missing, and there was a lot of nothing, they got nothing," Barbour said. "There were some close things that they tried to prepare at the time, and they came up empty-handed."
He said that this is one of the oldest cold case in sheriff's department files.
"As far as one where a body was located, this is the oldest one," Barbour said.
But the sheriff's department was never able to provide an I.D. to go with the body.
"We have not been able to, that's open-ended," Barbour said, adding that the investigation is once again on pause.
"We have some plans to move forward on doing some things on that case, but everything is kind of at a standstill right now what with our national health concerns," Barbour explained. "No non-essential investigations, so that's where it's kind of at right now."
Barbour said that without the COVID-19 pandemic, he might have had something more definitive in the case.
"If I were to rewind about three weeks, if I were to talk to someone then, I would have said hopefully in the next four to six weeks, we'll have some information to the media about this," Barbour said. "But that timeline has been pushed back, so..."
An identification of the man may bring some closure to family members, even after 40 years.
"That is the ultimate goal, to maybe give somebody closure," Barbour said. "Maybe there is nobody to give closure to right now, who knows, with as much time that has passed?" he added.
If you have any information about this case, you're asked to contact Barbour at the sheriff's department. The number is 715-361-5100.
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