By Carol Stiffler

When hunters stumbled upon the long-dead body of a man in the woods of Luce County in 1987, they couldn’t have known they were stepping into the middle of a mystery.

The man was between 23 and 30 years old, had reddish brown hair, a small mustache, and well-kept teeth. He was wearing camouflage clothes, black leather boots, had moderate scoliosis, and had a metal rod in his leg, presumably from a bad break earlier in his life. He was found off County Road 412 in McMillan Township, but had no identification on his person. He didn’t match any missing persons reports, and he is estimated to have died between January and September in 1987.

The Michigan State Police investigated the case, even reconstructing an image of what he may have looked like. Michigan State Police Detective Eric Johnson inherited the cold case in 2016.

“We had several hits where people have looked similar to him that I followed up on,” Johnson said. He’s also had many people agree to provide DNA samples for the case, but it hasn’t netted any matches.

“These things are hard,” Johnson said. “In 1987, nobody had Ring cameras at their places. There were no cell phones we can track.”

In 2021, the Michigan State Police asked the non-profit DNA Doe Project organization to help. The man’s body still had recoverable DNA, and it’s been uploaded to be compared with DNA samples at Family Tree DNA and GEDmatch. Law enforcement is allowed access to those databases for forensic work or cases with unidentified human remains.

Gwen Knapp, who lives in Illinois, is DNA Doe Project’s team leader on the case, which they’ve named Luce County John Doe. She issued a press release last week asking the public for help.

“We’ve been working on him since the fall of 2021. We need help,” Knapp said. “Sometimes when we get these really distant matches, but no close cousins or relatives.”

It appears that Luce County John Doe is of Prussian or German descent, and some of his distant relatives may have last names of Sattleberg, Radke, Papke, or Zadel. Some of his relatives may have relocated to Gage County, Nebraska.

There are several ways the public can help. Sharing information about long-ago missing family members is key. People can also study the reconstructed image of the man’s face to see if they recognize him. Perhaps most importantly, they can submit a DNA sample to Family Tree DNA or GEDmatch–a gift that widens the DNA database and creates family links that may one day result in finding Luce County John Doe’s family.

Submitting a DNA sample isn’t without risks. Sometimes the DNA can lead to the discovery of surprising family secrets – like bringing to light a hidden teenage pregnancy and child given up for adoption, or providing a link that leads to the arrest of a relative.

“Finding long buried family secrets is always a possibility,” Knapp said. “But there’s always pros and cons to everything. A pro, in that sense, could be helping get this man back to his family.

There could be a daughter or son who grew up without a father and thought he abandoned them, when in fact he was in the woods in Luce County, Michigan.”

Sometimes Knapp and her team solve a case in hours, but a team of six DNA Doe Project volunteers has been working on Luce County John Doe’s case for years.

“When we get it resolved, we’re ecstatic,” Knapp said. “Every person deserves to have their name when they come into this world and when they leave this world. I think your name is the only thing you have that’s truly yours. He is a human. No matter what he may or may not have done in life, he deserves to have a name.”

Anyone who may have information about Luce County John Doe is encouraged to email tips to the DNA Doe Project at, or reach out to Johnson at