Mystery Death in Desert: Do You Recognize These Tattoos?

Last year, a young Native man was found dead in a remote stretch of Arizona desert.

He was between 18 and 24 years old and tall—at least 6’2’’ and maybe as much as 6’6”, according to Pima County Medical Examiner Bruce Anderson. The dead man’s chest was adorned with two multi-colored five-pointed stars, and on the right side of his upper back were a clown image and the phrases “smile now” and “cry later” in flowing script.

The man had been dead several months when a Border Patrol dog discovered his remains in April 2014 in Organ Pipe National Monument, near the border with Mexico. He had apparently succumbed to the elements, said Sergeant Sonia Pesqueira, of the Pima County Sheriff’s Department. “Cause of death is still considered undetermined, but we don’t see gunshot wounds or other indications that he was murdered.”

The dead do tell tales, though. They are silent witnesses to a life and its passing. Anderson believes that the young man’s distinctive tattoos and other features will help reveal who he is and how he came to a tragic end in that lonely spot. “Nowadays, kids email friends pictures of their tattoos and post them on Facebook. So, we hope someone will recognize them.”

Anderson believes the youngster was Native North American, rather than one of the numerous Meso-Americans with Native ancestry who die in the Arizona desert while crossing into the United States. Among other factors, the decedent’s height and the tattoo’s English-language caption suggest a north-of-the-border homeland, though not necessarily Arizona. Tribal police at the closest Native nation, Tohono O’odham, told Anderson that no tribal members of his description have been reported missing.

Courtesy Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner-Forensic Science Center

Paired multi-colored star tattoos adorned the chest of an unidentified young Native man found dead in the Arizona desert. The significance of this array of colors is not known.

Other revealing facts: The young man had had a root canal, but died with three large and probably painful cavities, said Anderson. “A pattern like this usually shows that a person had good health care, then was alienated from it. We can’t know exactly why, but people often become separated from family and community because of bad behavior. They may then travel far from home and live a very dangerous lifestyle, with no one looking out for them.”

On the other hand, Anderson didn’t find the youngster’s DNA in the federal system. “That means he never served prison time,” said Pesqueira.

If you have helpful information about this case, you can contact the Pima County Sheriff’s tip line, 520-88-CRIME, anonymously if you wish; or visit 88crime.org. (To report another missing person, go tonamus.gov, the website for the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System; register as a public user and enter the relevant information.)

If you think the youngster might be a relative and want to provide DNA to be checked for a match, go to untfsu.com, and click on “Submitting DNA.” However, DNA may not be essential in identifying him, given the information his remains have yielded, according to Anderson. He explained that traditional means of identification—height, age, tattoos and more—can be the fastest and easiest.

“We have to get beyond the notion that DNA is the only way to identify a person. It can be, but not always,” said Anderson. “For loved ones, the old-fashioned means are also more real. Seeing the evidence with your own eyes is more satisfying than finding out a scientist matched your DNA.”

Courtesy Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner-Forensic Science Center

Clown faces with the phrases “smile now” and “cry later” were found on the right side of the upper back of a young Native man who apparently succumbed to the elements in the southern Arizona desert.

Good descriptions are powerful, confirmed B.J. Spamer, director of forensic and analytical services for NamUs. Spamer was part of a team that identified a young Native woman who died mysteriously in Georgia in the 1970s. Decades later, a family member saw her description—including a prosthetic right eye, a healed head injury and a turquoise and coral ring—on the Georgia Bureau of Investigations’ website and was sure she knew her.

The family contacted the bureau. The lost relative was indeed Juanita Adams, who left Pine Ridge Indian Reservation during the summer of 1978. The 19-year-old Oglala Lakota was headed for Washington, D.C., and the culmination of the American Indian Movement’s coast-to-coast Longest Walk for tribal sovereignty. In April 2011, Adams completed her own journey and was laid to rest in a family cemetery in Red Shirt, South Dakota.

Now, Anderson and Pesqueira hope, a young man in Arizona may be starting his voyage home.

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