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The Curious Case of the Unknown Man

The Curious Case of the Unknown Man

“A guy needs somebody to be near him. A guy goes nuts if he ain’t got nobody. Don’t make no difference who the guy is, as long’s he’s with you. I tell ya, I tell ya a guy gets too lonely an’ he gets sick.”

The old man kept to himself. He said little and was seen less. He had few friends and even fewer possessions. With the doors and windows locked, several days had passed before the overripe stench coming from his apartment became unbearable and the landlord was forced to enter. The old man’s body was face down in the bathroom. His hand still clung to the .38, it shell casing not far apart. A week of decomposition in the dead of summer left the scene a fetid travesty. Responding officer, Joe Truczak, had to wait to enter until gasmasks and respirators arrived. The Eastlake police report cites “thousands of maggots were on and around the body, mostly the head.” With no apparent next of kin to claim the body, the man whose identification read ‘Joseph Newton Chandler,’ was cremated. As Officer Truczak explained over the phone, “For a gentleman who lived that identity for so long there was no reason at the initial point in the investigation to feel that he was anybody, but Joseph Newton Chandler.” The original case report ends with, “…apparent cause is suicide. Case closed.”

…Until it wasn’t.

It was not long before peculiarities began appearing in the case. When police interviewed Mike Onderisin, an estranged co-worker that Chandler listed executor of his will, he remembered Chandler as a man of distinct peculiarities. An electrical savant, Chandler fashioned headphones that broadcast white noise to drown out the rest of the world and breaker boxes that changed the channel anytime commercials ran. The man had lived in the same one bedroom apartment since 1986 and yet had next to no possessions. “Very mundane,” Truczak remembered, “very few personal items in the residence. Hanging in the closet he had very few articles of clothing. It’s almost like someone barely lived there.” Onderisin, like the rest of the world, assumed Chandler to be little more than a queer old man, whose only crime was a painfully isolated existence. It was not until a cursory search into his social security number revealed that his alleged identity traced back to an eight-year-old boy who died in a Tulsa, Oklahoma car crash on Christmas Eve, 1945. The man who committed suicide in 2002 was an imposter and had been living under the lie since he relocated to Cleveland in 1979.

zodiac wanted

“He could be anybody,” explained US Marshal, Peter Elliott, when I met with him at his downtown office. “People that assume other people’s names and live covertly for a number of years under that name and went through all the cautions he did are usually someone on the run.” Elliott added, “I think when it’s all said and done its going to be someone who’s been on the run for something significant.” Whoever the man was, he was careful not to leave a trail. He paid for everything in cash. He kept to himself and made little associations from the day he materialized in Cleveland in 1979, seemingly from nowhere, until the day he ended his life. Aside from a partial lifted from an ashtray, no prints were recovered from the scene or the body, which had been cremated shortly after its discovery without taking DNA evidence or performing an autopsy.

By the time local police realized the simple suicide was anything but, any potential evidence had been lost or damaged. This includes the murder weapon that, “due to condition and manner in which weapon was stored, any fingerprint evidence would have been destroyed,” according to an Eastlake police report. John Doe had a home computer, which, as stated in the same police report, “was accidentally dropped, broken, and discarded when property was being moved.” Elliott lamented, “The computer was lost which would have been great for us. We would have been able to find some stuff on that.” Reluctantly, Elliott considered, “If they would have thought he was someone else I think they would have put more effort into trying to find more fingerprints.” Officer Truczac shares Elliott’s concerns, sharing, “If there would have been questions regarding his identity then there would have been more done at the initial point.”

Two years after his death, Onderisin grew impatient and filed an official complaint with Eastlake Police Department in order to determine any of John Doe’s potential heirs. Lieutenant Tom Doyle’s formal response read in part, “This investigation has consumed many, many man-hours, but is noncriminal in nature.

Although we desire to provide closure to some family’s mystery and to return property to family members nothing is occurring, nor is anything anticipated with this case.” His explanation was similar when we talked, “I was making a case to the judge that we don’t have any standing in this case, the city of Eastlake. It’s taken up lots of time and it’s going nowhere and it’s a civil matter. It doesn’t involve us. It doesn’t even have an allegation of a crime. I can’t speak for the Chief of Police, but I know that there is no interest in it. They don’t have the time or interest to pursue something that is just a great curiosity.”

Since the mystery began, there has been no shortage of theories. Perhaps most sensational is the possibility he and the Zodiac Killer, the serial killer who stalked southern California in the late sixties to the early seventies, are one in the same. As unlikely as it may seem, when I asked Marshal Elliott if he ruled out the potential, his answer was immediate and without reproach, “No, not at all. We have not ruled anything out, including that.” A photo of John Doe, with his physical appearance regressed to how he would have appeared in the late seventies, finds striking similarities to the infamous police sketch of the Zodiac Killer. The two share similar glasses, male pattern baldness, knobbed chins and the same distinct bent bridge to their noses. At five foot seven inches, John Doe was distinctively shorter than an average man. Nearly every report given to police had Zodiac at the same height. Elliott mentioned during our meeting, “What’s going to rule out a lot of people is their height.”

Mia Marcum, the Ohio director for the Doe Network, which works to identify unknown persons, said as much when she wrote to the Eastlake police while they were still investigating. Although much of what John Doe claims has to be considered dubious at best, Marcum drew light to his listed previous work experience which places him in California at the same time as the Zodiac. Even if his work history was fabricated, it would seem counter-intuitive to fabricate a past so geographically tied to the one you’re attempting to escape, that is, unless you’re modeling your life as a different Joseph Chandler all together.

Stay with me, because here’s where we go down the rabbit hole…

Born in 1950, there was a third Chandler, a Joseph Nelson Chandler living in San Rafael, California at the same times as the Zodiac murders. (For clarity’s sake, we will refer to this third man as “Nelson” for the rest of the article.) While Nelson is innocent of any such crimes, Zodiac and/or John Doe may have been someone he worked with or lived near. Consider that after crossing the San Rafael Bridge into the rest of California on the I-580, San Rafael commuters enter California proper on the I-80. This inevitable stretch of freeway for anyone living in San Raphael either leads or links to Vallejo, Bencia, Napa, and at its furthest, Modesto, all sites of Zodiac’s murders. One of the maps the Zodiac mailed to police, known loosely as the “Mt. Diablo map” was a road atlas map of the San Francisco Bay, which, he alleged, led to one of his victims. No bodies were recovered, but we now know the Zodiac used road maps prominently featuring San Raphael and the nearby freeways that linked from there to his crimes. Our John Doe’s alleged work history also sees his employment near another two California crime scenes of Zodiac’s, Lompac and Riverside, during the very stretch of time.

zodiac1After reviewing what straws I could grasp, a theory emerged. After fleeing California, the Zodiac and/or our John Doe would be looking for an alias. The Tulsa crash of 1945, which was featured in several papers, would have drawn his attention. It was common for children in rural areas at the time not to be automatically registered with social security. The child’s death would leave John Doe with an opportunity to exploit. But more importantly, the boy shared the same name as another man in the area, his possible acquaintance, Joseph Nelson Chandler. Was this a means to hide in plain sight? Any superficial look into his connection to California in the late 1960s would only become muddied when invariably confused with Joseph Nelson Chandler from San Rafael. It should be noted, if even circumstantially, Nelson and the child also shared their name with the lead investigator who failed to apprehend the Zodiac’s personal hero, Jack the Ripper. Ripper was favored by the Zodiac and even mentioned in his notes. Additionally, a non-existent emergency contact given by John Doe, “Mary Wilson,” also shares her name with another English serial killer of the same era. The odds would be too great to pass up for a mind as bent on patterns and riddles as the Zodiac’s.

What we do know as fact is that John Doe made his first known appearance under his new alias while requesting a “copy” of his birth certificate (that of the actual Joseph Newton Chandler) to be mailed to a dilapidated shack in Rapid City, South Dakota in 1978. There, he then used the fraudulent certificate to obtain a social security card. The Rapid City Journal has local Detective Tom Senesac looking back in retrospect, “The fact that a forty-one year old man was requesting a social security card should have sent up a red flag at the time.”

A year later, John Doe settled in Cleveland and lived the rest of his life in obscurity until he ended it all on June 24, 2002. Curiously, eight years earlier, on the same day John Doe would commit suicide, Nelson died unexpectedly at age 44 in 1994. This is the same year our John Doe stops receiving social security benefits after switching his work to that of a contracted employee. Was this done in fear of drawing attention to a social security account which would have had the actual benefit contributions of one man (John Doe), the listed work history of another (Nelson), and the registered numbers of a dead child (Tulsa Boy)? Elliott informed me that in 1994, John Doe told his friend, Bob Onderisin, that unspecified people “were closing in on him” and that he would have to “lay low for a while.” There is a period of time during that year that, to this day, is unaccounted for in his records.

Eight years later, on the very anniversary that Nelson died, our John Doe locks the doors to his apartment and eats the barrel of a .38. Was the date significant to him? Had the years alone and the recent diagnosis of advanced rectal cancer left him looking at the date as an enviable swansong to exit on? Is that why the day after is blacked out with an “X” on the calendar found in the apartment, as if he knew that the 24th held an inescapable terminus fated for both men? Was the parallel one last riddle for the Zodiac to leave behind, a symbolic tip of the hat to the man who’s life he adopted for so many years?

I relayed the theory to Marshall Elliott. “It has me looking at certain things in a new light,” he offered. His answer was non-committal, but better than the tinfoil hat for which I assumed I’d be fitted. After a subsequent search, Elliott could not confirm John Doe’s alleged California work history and conceded that particular Zodiac angle would need more conclusive evidence to move forward. Even still, he encouraged me not to give up the ghost. “I have something else I want you to look into,” he suggested. “There were some unsolved murders in East Liverpool in the seventies that might be interesting to the case.”

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