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The original item was published from 11/2/2023 6:15:00 PM to 12/2/2023 12:00:02 AM.

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Posted on: November 2, 2023

[ARCHIVED] Spokane County Medical Examiner Uses Forensic Genetic Genealogy in 1989 Unidentified Person Case

SPOKANE COUNTY, Wash. -- Spokane County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Veena Singh announced her office recently officially identified a previously unidentified person. The individual identified, 45-year-old Clifford Wayne Bippes, was found deceased by an employee at the Spokane Northside Landfill and had been reported missing by his family in the early 1990s. The breakthrough was made possible by an allocation of federal American Rescue Plan funds to the Spokane County Medical Examiner’s Office to help identify unidentified human remains using a forensic genetic genealogy tool. 

Case Background 

On July 2nd, 1989, an employee at Spokane Northside Landfill was using a bulldozer to clear an area of debris when he noticed he’d uncovered what appeared to be human remains. On further inspection, the body was that of a white male wearing blue slacks, a blue jacket, and a light-colored shirt, but without any form of identification. He had visible injuries, including skin tears and broken bones. Today the landfill is private, but in 1989 it was unmonitored, open to the public, and only maintained by employees every 2-3 weeks. Because of the injuries and the accessibility of the landfill, the death was initially considered suspicious. However, an autopsy revealed the decedent’s injuries likely occurred when the body was struck by the bulldozer, rather than being the cause of death.  Due to decomposition, there were no organs for examination and no tissue suitable for toxicology testing. A definitive cause of death could not be identified, leaving the cause and manner of death undetermined. Because of postmortem changes, the decedent’s face was not recognizable, and fingerprints could not be obtained, so the usual forms of identification at the time could not be used. He was buried at Fairmount Cemetery as an unidentified male while the Spokane Police Department (SPD) and the Spokane County Coroner continued investigating his identity and the circumstances of his death.  

Forearm tattoo

Although the decedent could not be visually identified, he had several distinct tattoos which were preserved for public viewing (Images 1a-c). Beyond this, the only individualizing characteristics noted during autopsy were stubble present on the man’s chin and upper lip and possible degenerative joint disease. A forensic pathologist estimated he was between 40-60 years old and 5’4”-5’6” tall. Fingerprints were eventually obtained by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) but did not match any prints in the existing database. The decedent’s teeth were charted by a forensic dentist for comparison to missing persons’ records, but this did not result in a match.   

Over the next several months, SPD detectives canvassed local tattoo parlors, bars, homeless shelters, nearby apartment buildings, and even the county jail with illustrations of the decedent’s tattoos and his general description, searching for someone to identify him to no avail. The illustrations and description were then released to the media. This resulted in several possible leads, all of which were eventually ruled out. 

Following the autopsy in 1989, the decedent’s skull was retained by the Spokane County Coroner for use in later identification efforts. In 2002, another examination of the skull was completed at the Spokane County Medical Examiner’s Office (SCMEO) so the case could be added to the Washington State Patrol Unidentified Human Remains Project list. In 2004 the SCMEO sent tissue samples from this case to the FBI in hopes of extracting DNA. They obtained a mitochondrial DNA sequence (genome inherited from maternal lineage) and uploaded it to the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) for comparison to DNA profiles in a variety of databases. In 2008 additional samples were sent and a nuclear DNA profile (genome inherited from both parental lineages) was obtained and added to CODIS.  

Digital RenderingSimultaneously, while awaiting DNA testing and advancements, investigators continued to work on the case in hopes of identifying the decedent by other means. The skull was used for the completion of facial reconstruction images by forensic artists (Images 2a-b). These artists used cranial measurements and photographs of the decedent to create an artistic interpretation of what he may have looked like in life with hopes that someone may recognize similarities with a man they knew and identify him. As another method of circulating the case to law enforcement and the public it was added to several databases; profiles were created in the National Crime Information Center database (NCIC, Case #U419827783), the Washington Crime Information Center database (WACIC, Case #90U0000003), the Doe Network (Case #362UMWA), and the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs, Case #UP490).  

Through the years the SCMEO and SPD were contacted by family members and law enforcement agencies offering possible leads on this John Doe’s identity, but none of these leads resulted in identification. Without identification, no further investigative steps could be taken to determine how he came to be in the landfill, and the case went cold.  

In July 2023 the SCMEO sent a tissue sample from this case to Othram, a company that uses Forensic-Grade Genome Sequencing to extract and analyze degraded DNA, then reports on the individual’s genetic network. A biological son had entered his DNA into a genetic genealogy database; he had been adopted at birth and was in search of his biological family. Although he didn’t know who his biological parents were, he had done extensive family tree research and was able to provide a family name and possible leads on who his father may be. Investigators with the Spokane County Medical Examiner’s Office were then able to locate a living biological sister who submitted a DNA sample for reference testing.   On October 3rd, 2023, the reference test confirmed the sibling relationship between the unknown man and his sister, and Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Veena Singh officially identified the man as Clifford Wayne Bippes (Images 3a-b).

ME Identified CaseClifford was born in Tekoa, Washington on September 25th, 1943, was the oldest of three siblings, and served in the US Army. His sister last saw him about six months prior to his death, and at that time he had none of the pictured tattoos. She was unable to reach him for several months and reported him missing in January 1990 after he failed to call or visit on her birthday. She searched for him extensively but ultimately was never able to find him. After exhausting all other avenues, she placed a headstone honoring him, listing his date of death as April 1991.    

The Spokane Police Department and the Spokane County Medical Examiner’s Office urge anyone with information about Clifford’s death to contact the police through Crime Check (509-456-2233).  

The Spokane County Medical Examiner’s Office would like to thank the following individuals and organizations for their assistance in this case: the Spokane Police Department, Othram Inc, Dr. F Morgan (forensic odontologist), the late Dr. G Lindholm (forensic pathologist), the late Dr. G McConnell (coroner), C Koppelman and D Marion (forensic artists), NamUs, the FBI, The Doe Network, WSP, and the Cunningham and Bippes families for sharing their DNA and photographs to solve this 34-year-old mystery.  

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