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Authorities reveal identity of Youngstown’s John Doe

Robert ‘Earl’ Sanders was reported missing in August 1976

A black-and-white photo of Robert Sanders, left, next to a facial reconstruction was on display during a press conference Monday at the Covelli Centre announcing that two cold cases — one in Youngstown and one in Fayette County — were solved from same photo and model. Staff photo / R. Michael Semple

YOUNGSTOWN — “It was 17,000 days ago to this day exactly — 46 years, six months and 15 days, Aug. 13, 1976 — that a missing report was filed on Youngstown John Doe,” Capt. Jason Simon of the Youngstown Police Department said Monday of when Robert “Earl” Sanders, 23, was reported missing.

A moment later, Simon of the detective division put a photo on a table next to him showing Sanders, and Alisa Yelkin gasped.

Yelkin was the person who alerted Detective Sgt. Dave Sweeney of the Youngstown Police Department about 18 months ago that there was a skull in the anthropology department at Youngstown State University, and she thought the person’s identity should be determined.

Yelkin was in the audience for a news conference at the Covelli Centre when Simon, Sweeney, Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost and several other speakers revealed the name of the John Doe and told a remarkable story about how DNA, Sweeney’s work and a bust created by Yost’s Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation identified the remains found on Youngstown’s East Side in 1987.

Also Monday, Sheriff Vernon Stanforth of Fayette County near Columbus joined by teleconference to describe how the Youngstown John Doe bust and a news conference Youngstown police had last August produced a tip. The tip was passed on by Sweeney to BCI and helped solve an unidentified body case in Fayette County.

‘WHATEVER HAPPENED?’

Sanders’ family did not attend Monday’s event, but Yelkin’s emotional response to seeing Sanders’ photo showed how important it was to identify Sanders.

“This has been very important to me,” Yelkin said from the podium. “We have all met someone in our lives who sticks with us,” she said. At times, we wonder “Whatever happened to them?” she said.

Yelkin said that skull in the anthropology department 20 years ago, while studying anthropology, was such a person for her.

“I wondered forever who he was. I wondered what he looked like,” she said. She tried to talk to police multiple times over the years, she said, to let them know she thought someone should investigate.

“I called, and I called,” she said. “Nobody took me seriously.” Finally, about 18 months ago, she read an article about the cold cases Sweeney had been working on. He seemed determined, so she called him. They spoke for 90 minutes.

More than a year later, she got the most amazing news: The person she had been wondering about was Earl Sanders.

“It’s so important. It was like Christmas two weeks ago knowing it was about to happen,” she said. “It was the greatest Christmas of my life because I finally got to know Robert (Sanders) and to know his name. It’s insane when you think about somebody that often,” she said. “You want to know where they ended up.”

She encouraged others to let police know if they have information: “Don’t worry about how may people won’t listen to you.”

SKULL FOUND

When a relative reported Sanders missing to Youngstown police in 1976, he or she said they last saw him four days earlier, and it was “not like him to leave.”

The Youngstown Police Department investigated the case, Simon said, but “no leads came to fruition.”

On Sept. 10, 1987, Charles Humphries, 71, of Liberty Road, and his grandson, Jason Scnich, 11, discovered a skull and other remains while squirrel hunting in a wooded area off of Liberty Road in Youngstown. They called police.

The area was along a closed portion of Liberty Road about 200 yards north of the weed-covered Mount Hope Park Cemetery. The body appeared to have been buried there three to five years earlier, police said.

The remains were turned over to a Youngstown State University anthropology professor in October 1987, where they remained for decades, Simon said.

The next big development was Yelkin’s phone call to Sweeney, who contacted BCI, which extracted DNA from the remains. An anthropologist provided the sex and race of the John Doe and estimated the age to be 30 to 44 years.

BCI forensic artist Sam Molnar of the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation used that information to create a bust. She took the skull to a hospital, where a CT scan was done to generate a three-dimensional image that was printed on a three-dimensional printer. The bust reconstruction was created over a plastic replica of the skull, preserving the skull for DNA and other analysis.

Last August, Molnar asked the public to contact the Youngstown Police Department if they thought the image looked like someone they knew from the 1980s.

A phone call about the bust came from a Cincinnati man, who thought he knew who John Doe was — a friend from Toledo named Teddy Long. The Cincinnati man was wrong, but Sweeney turned over the information to BCI, which eventually determined that Long was the John Doe who had been found in 1981 in Fayette County.

Simon said Monday advanced DNA testing from Othram Labs of Texas and genetic geology from the Ohio organization Porch Light Project was used to identify Sanders, who lived on Parkwood Drive near Glenwood Avenue on Youngstown’s South Side. Porch Light also paid for the DNA analysis and carried out the genetic genealogy at no cost to the police department.

At the end of the process, Porch Light provided a family tree to Sweeney, and Sweeney contacted a family member, who provided DNA that confirmed that Youngstown’s John Doe is Sanders.

According to Simon, the investigation into the cause and manner of Sanders’ death is just beginning. “Now we can put a name to it. It’s a while back, but there are still plenty of people alive from then,” Simon said.

SECOND CASE

After the August 2022 news conference where the bust of Youngstown’s John Doe was shown, a Cincinnati man told Sweeney the bust depicted Theodore Long of Toledo.

Though anthropological analysis indicated the person depicted by the bust was black, the Cincinnati man told Sweeney: “You have it wrong. It’s my buddy Teddy,” who was white.

Sweeney said he listened to everything the man said and provided information to Jennifer Lester with the BCI, who had already been working on the Long case for a while.

Sweeney called the Toledo Police Department, and officials located fingerprint cards and a booking photo for Teddy Long and sent it to BCI.

BCI confirmed the fingerprints of Teddy Long were the same as the John Doe in Fayette County. “So we had two cold cases cleared with this case,” Sweeney said.

The way Sanders and Long were identified testifies to the value of having many partners working together and having help from the public, he said.

“Any little tip can break it,” he added.

OTHER CASES

Sweeney said with Sanders identified, the unidentified person case on the “hot plate” now is that of a white man age 50 to 55 whose body was recovered from the Mahoning River about 100 feet east of the Market Street bridge about 2:45 p.m. June 29, 1980, by Youngstown firefighters.

The man had brown hair and brown eyes and was estimated to weigh about 150 pounds. He was about 5 feet-8 inches and was wearing a green short-sleeved button-down shirt with brown socks, pants and shoes, according to the NameUs website.

One of the more recent solved John or Jane Doe cases before Sanders is that of America Williams, 30, whose body was found in a Westlake Terrace apartment on Youngstown’s North Side in 1995. News coverage of the Westlake Terrace Jane Doe led to calls from Williams’ daughter, Monique. Identity was determined by using a photo of Williams that showed her teeth. The cause of her death was not determined.

Also, last June, the remains of Lina Reyes Geddes, 37, of Austintown were identified as having been found more than 24 years after she was reported missing after leaving on a trip. She remained a Jane Doe until last June. She had been found murdered April 20, 1998, along side of a road in a rural area 38 miles north of Lake Powell in Utah.

Cutting-edge science enabled investigators in Utah to conclude that Edward Geddes, Lina’s husband, who died in 2001, was responsible for Lina’s death. Youngstown police and forensic experts in Utah were credited with solving the case.

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