Starting in issue six, I began an investigation of the Curious Case of the Unknown Man. A man who committed suicide in an Eastlake apartment in 2002 was discovered to have been living under the stolen identity of an eight-year-old boy from Tulsa, Oklahoma, who died in 1945.
To date, no one has learned John Doe’s true identity or why he went decades living under the alias. In the last issue, working with the help of a U.S. Marshal and local police, I traced a possible history back to the San Francisco Bay area of the late 1960s. Despite compelling circumstantial evidence, I was unable to conclusively link John Doe to the Zodiac Killer, who terrorized the region during the time; however, he remains one of the chief suspects. My next lead brought the investigation closer to home.
In early interviews with U.S. Marshal Peter Elliott, I learned that John Doe’s estranged coworker, Mike Onderisin, mentioned that John Doe talked briefly of spending time as a child in East Liverpool, Ohio. Elliott drew my attention to the application John Doe filled out when he applied for an apartment. On it, he listed a bank account in East Liverpool. Unlike his work history, this lead was verified and served as one of the few tangible footprints he left behind.
Sharing a border with neighboring West Virginia, East Liverpool’s legacy is as idyllic as it can be infamous. It was here that notorious mobster Pretty Boy Floyd finally bought the farm after being gunned down in cornfield. Once known as the pottery capital of America, here, quaint Appalachian living buttresses against a violent history of mobsters and murders dating back to the times of prohibition rum runners hustling across state lines. In the few years preceding John Doe’s spontaneous Cleveland arrival, East Liverpool was caught amid a rash of unsolved murders. Most famously and most tragically, in 1973, furniture store owner, Earl Tweed, was savagely murdered along with a pregnant Linda Morris and her four-year-old daughter. Despite occurring in the middle of the day on a busy street, no one saw a thing and the man slipped into the nearby woods never to be seen again. Despite being considered by other investigators as a compelling suspect, there was nothing within my limited reach I could use to connect John Doe.
Two years prior to the Tweed murders, an unidentified man was pulled from the rivers that run through the woods of East Liverpool’s Jethro Hollow. The victim’s hands and feet were bound behind his back with electrical wire, which was also used to strangle him to death before being tossed into the churning waters. His body was too far degraded by the time he was dredged to surface for forensics to provide an accurate identity. It was a gangland style execution that remained without a clue until a random call to Eastlake Law Director Charles Payne in 1993. According to East Liverpool’s own historical society’s records, an unidentified male contacted his office inquiring about Ohio’s policy on the death penalty. He said that he wanted to confess to a murder, but was fearful of capital punishment. While not confessing outright, he knew intimate details that were never released to the public, before adding that the victim was an innocent man. The unknown caller claimed he was searching for forgiveness after having found Christ five years prior to the hesitant confession. The man hung up before anything more could be learned and was never heard from again. I reached out to Charles Payne, who still practices law in East Liverpool, but made it no further than his secretary.
Remember, the year following this confession, our John Doe goes off the grid for several months after confiding to Onderisin that, “they were getting close.” Did his brief disappearance have less to do with the Zodiac Killer and more to do with the reluctant admission East Liverpool Law Director Charles Payne received? Onderisin’s speculation that John Doe spent a childhood in East Liverpool and his confirmed bank account places him in the region during the spate of unsolved murders. If he was complicit in a mob-related murder, it would not be a stretch to imagine contacts within the organization furnishing our John Doe with a fresh identity to avoid any possible recriminations coming home to roost. I reached out to the
Organized Crime Division of the State Attorney General office for insight but they, like Payne’s office, have yet to respond. When I first began this story I held no expectations of solving The Curious Case of the Unknown Man. As tantalizing as the possibility of bringing the Zodiac Killer to justice was, if even posthumously, I knew I was far from the first to try and work these disparate puzzle pieces. Without more resources and the reach that law enforcement can exercise, I had to close the book on the case just as the original police report had fourteen years prior. Unlike Marshal Elliott, I have my doubts as to whether we will ever discover the true identity of Cleveland’s Unknown Man.
Searching for a proper ending to a tale that may never have one, I sit alone in the bedroom of my own small apartment and can only imagine the loneliness that his seclusion brought him, that empty hole where family and friends fit. Living a lie, pretending to be someone you are not for so many years, I have to wonder, just whose memories are they that he looked back upon in his final years? Which identity owns the regrets that he took with him to the grave? Whether we ever learn his origin or whether he remains a stranger to all of us, there are things we do recognize in him. He is loneliness and regret. He is depression and paranoia. He is every one of us who has ever felt like a stranger in their own skin or never found a place to call home. In that tragic bond, we’ve always known who the Unknown Man was.