INDIAN RIVER COUNTY — A skull and bones – with no tissue remains and no clothing – found scattered along a wood line last year has left deputies investigating yet another mysterious death case. There was nothing in the soil or along the grass to indicate the person’s identity, and the cause of death had not yet been determined, sheriff’s officials said.
There are also no missing persons reports that match the human remains, Indian River County Sheriff Eric Flowers said.
“We do not know who this person is. This is someone’s loved one that’s missing,” Flowers said during a Thursday news conference at the sheriff’s office. “I personally walked this crime scene. The bones were scattered over a pretty large area.”
Now, Indian River County sheriff’s deputies are asking the public to take a close look at a rendering they recently received which shows what the person may have looked like. The image, which deputies said shows an Asian man in his 50s or 60s, was created through facial bone imaging and reconstruction.
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Medical examiners believe the man was Japanese and might have been 5-feet, 9-inches tall, sheriff’s officials said. Flowers noted the lab report stated medical examiners cannot rule out that the man might also be Hispanic or Native American.
“The (image) is based on the best estimate we have at this time,” Flowers said.
Indian River County Det. Phil Daugherty, who is leading the investigation, said deputies searched the area for three days for any possible clues as to what led to the man’s death. Deputies dug through the dirt, hoping to find more evidence that could possibly identify the man, but were unsuccessful.
“Initially we took the skull to the medical examiner’s office and had the teeth examined to see if we had any missing person cases this would fit,” Flowers said. “We found nothing. We had no information about any missing persons that matched up.”
The case began Dec. 14 with an unrelated police chase involving a 2020 Honda Civic stolen out of south Florida. The Honda driver and two passengers ran from the vehicle after it crashed near the Grand Harbor Golf and Beach Club.
Several sheriff’s K-9 dogs and Vero Beach police officers discovered the human remains while tracking the suspects, who were later detained and arrested, sheriff’s officials said. The remains were found in an undeveloped wooded property near 53rd Street and U.S. 1.
“This is the far end of an old driving range. There were scattered golf balls that were left out back there, cans and debris,” Flowers said. “We found one semi-homeless encampment probably about a half-a-mile away, but we don’t know if that’s connected to this whatsoever.”
Flowers said the remains had been there for some time – exposed to the elements of Florida weather – though the exact amount of time was unclear. The skull and bones were sent to the medical examiner’s office.
Medical examiners extracted DNA from the bones and entered it into the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS). CODIS is a computer software program that operates local, state and national databases of DNA profiles from missing persons, along with unsolved crime scene evidence and convicted offenders, according to the federal agency Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Deputies contacted Palm Beach County Sheriff’s officials, who created the rendering of the man, Daugherty said.
Flowers said the next step will be to use DNA genealogy to possibly identify the remains. Flowers noted that DNA genealogy is a slow, emerging technology, and that it could take years before deputies get results.
“We’re hoping somebody out there recognizes this drawing as somebody they know that went missing,” Flowers said. “We want to put some closure to this and find out why this person was dead in our county.”
Flowers said the death may be connected to human trafficking, and that the man might not be from the area.
“Nobody has come forward to say (he’s) missing. That’s a concern,” Flowers said. “A lot times in human trafficking cases, the people are missing but nobody knows they’re missing.”
Anyone who recognizes the man in the image should contact the sheriff’s office at 772-569-6700. Callers can remain anonymous by contacting Treasure Coast Crime Stoppers at 1-800-273-TIPS or tcwatch.org.
Photos by Joshua Kodis