SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Investigators are crediting advances in technology for helping them identify a man found dead nearly two decades ago after a Utah house fire as a 27-year-old from Oregon who was reported missing around the same time.
Police determined John Edwin Duff's identity last week using fingerprints. They connected his September 1994 disappearance to an Ogden house fire that happened a month later.
"Whether he was just travelling through town, whether he was staying at a local shelter but couldn't make it in for the night, we don't have any of those details," Ogden police Sgt. Tim Scott said. But the fingerprints matched, he said.
Investigators say improved forensic know-how, a simple Google search and a national database for people reported missing helped them identify Duff. Those tools were not available 18 years ago.
Duff was a former marine with a history of depression and alcoholism, and it's likely he considered suicide, Multnomah County police records show.
He had several outstanding warrants, said Lt. Steve Alexander, including at least one for burglary. Duff's family reported him missing in March 1995, Alexander said, about five months after the Utah house fire.
Duff's case is exactly the kind that investigators probably wouldn't have pieced together more than a handful of years ago. Before 2009, it was tough for authorities to identify someone who went missing in one state and was found dead in another state, medical examiner and investigator Jill Haslam said.
Investigators also had a hard time linking cases where the remains turned up before police filed those reports.
Utah medical examiners credit a database, which it began using in 2009, for helping identify the remains of six other people that were found in Utah back to 1978, Haslam said.
They expect advances in technology to help form more connections between people who have been missing for years and unidentified remains cataloged around the country.
John Edwin Duff was last seen in Multnomah County, Ore., in September 1994. A month later, firefighters found the body of a man who died in an Ogden house fire. They believed he was taking shelter there one October night when it set ablaze. They didn't suspect foul play.
Utah Investigators in 1994 exhausted leads on the identity of the man killed in the house fire, and they couldn't find a fingerprint match. In 2010, they added the case to a growing national database tracking unidentified remains. In 2012, the sheriff's office in Multnomah County, Ore. added Duff's profile to the National Missing & Unidentified Persons System.
The system tipped off Utah investigators that two entries overlapped with similar information. Tim Scott, the police sergeant, opened the case back up after the database pinged them that there may be a match to a missing person from Salt Lake City.
That lead was wrong. But Scott went to the Utah State Crime Lab to run the man's fingerprints again. The fingerprint scan turned over a different match with the 20-something from Oregon.
Scott also Googled Duff's name and found a photograph of him. He matched that photo to one of the burn victim's face and seeing similar features, he called the state medical examiner.
Ogden police relayed the match to the sheriff in Multnomah, where police contacted Duff's family 18 years after he went missing.
Police say they hope that technology will help them bring closure to family members of other people who have been missing for decades.
"It's difficult" to tell families about loved ones, Scott said, "but at the same time it's rewarding."