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Skull Found In Montana Wilderness Nearly 50 Years Ago Identified As Belonging To Wisconsin Hitchhiker Who Vanished In 1976

DNA technology helped identify the skeletal remains of Rogers “Roger” Lee Ellis, who was just 18 when he disappeared from Wisconsin Rapids.

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The skeletal remains of a Wisconsin man, which turned up in Montana in 2004, were identified through genetic genealogy, nearly a half century after he vanished.

Police have launched a murder investigation into the mysterious death of Rogers “Roger” Lee Ellis, who disappeared in 1976, after DNA technology helped identify the man’s partial skeleton.

In June 2004, Carbon County authorities say a hiker found a human skull roughly 15 miles south of Red Lodge, Montana. Investigators later uncovered a femur and a pelvic bone. Forensic analysis indicated the bones belonged to the same individual, a male aged between 15 and 32. Detectives uploaded the DNA from the remains to a national database, however, a match was never returned.

This year, local investigators in Montana, assisted by the FBI, launched a renewed investigation, centered on new genetic genealogical techniques, to help identify the skeletal remains. Authorities approached Othram Inc., a Texas-based private forensic genealogy lab, to develop a DNA profile of the skeletal remains, which was ultimately used by genealogical investigators to identify the bones as Ellis’.

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Officials now say Ellis had fled Wisconsin in December 1976 following an arrest for marijuana possession. He was 18 at the time. 

A police handout of what Rogers "Roger" Lee Ellis may look like

“Ellis told his family he didn’t want to go to jail and that he was going to head west,” the Carbon County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement. “Ellis had no further contact with his family.”

Investigators suspect he was murdered at some point while hitchhiking across the country. His exact date of death is unknown. 

“We suspect he was killed by the person or persons with whom he was traveling with and they left his body in Montana and continued on their way,” the Carbon County Sheriff's Office said.

No arrests have been made.

"It is the ultimate tragedy that Roger Ellis vanished in 1976 while traveling West, but we are grateful to have been able to at least assist in his identification and we are hopeful investigators can find the person or persons responsible for his death,” Kristen Mittleman, Othram Inc.’s founder and chief business development Officer, told Oxygen.com on Friday. “We are further grateful to NamUS and the National Institute of Justice for providing the financial support that made this identification possible".

Authorities, who have launched a new cold case investigation into Ellis’ killing, are now relying on public tips, and information from those who may have known Ellis in the 1970s, to help solve the case.

"All information we can gather, no matter how small or insignificant they might feel it is," Detective Ben Mahoney, who's leading investigative efforts, told Oxygen.com on Friday. "Often it is the small details that will help move a cold case forward."

Ellis was born in Wisconsin Rapids, according to his obituary. He attended St. Vincent de Paul School and Lincoln High School. Family said Ellis had an active interest in electronics from a young age, loved animals, nature and relished taking trips to his cousins’ farm where he enjoyed riding horses. Ellis also played the guitar and drums. His funeral was held in September, following the identification of his remains.

The case is open and active. No other information was released by law enforcement.

Anyone with additional information related to Ellis’ disappearance and death is urged to contact Det. Mahoney with the Carbon County Sheriff’s Office by calling 406-445-7284 or emailing bmahoney@co.carbon.mt.us.

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