The mystery surrounding the identity of a hiker found dead in a Florida tent has been solved, thanks to a combination of DNA testing, crowdfunding and public outreach, it was announced this week.
In July 2018, two hikers discovered a dead body in a tent at a Big Cypress National Preserve campsite in Collier County, Florida, DNA Solves said in a press release on Monday. The dead man has now been identified as Vance Rodriguez, an IT worker from New York who was originally from Louisiana. His cause of death remains unclear.
“The man had no identification, phone or computer with him, and our exhaustive efforts to identify him through traditional means were unsuccessful,” the Collier County Sheriff’s Office said in a Tuesday press release. Rodriguez had no tattoos, scars, or medical implants that would help identify him.
Investigators combed missing persons databases for matching fingerprints and dental records but didn’t get any matches. When they posted a composite photo of the man, hikers who claimed that they had met him on the trail reached out. They sent investigators photos of a man they knew by the nickname “Mostly Harmless.” They also learned that he went by the aliases “Ben Bilemy” and “Denim.” But that lead soon dried up.
By 2020, the sheriff’s department had partnered with Othram, a private DNA lab in Texas, to identify the hiker through forensic genealogy. It was through this genealogy research that Othram determined that the man was likely Cajun and had family in Louisiana, Forensic Magazine reported.
Soon, the team was able to pinpoint Assumption Parish as the man’s area of origin. Othram, journalists, and members of the public began running posts and targeted Facebook ads, which included photos of Rodriguez, to that area of Louisiana in an effort to identify him. Othram CEO David Mittelman told Oxygen.com that the project was crowdfunded.
The effort eventually reached Rodriguez’s former colleague, who recognized him and reached out to the Collier County Sheriff’s Office.
“The coworker provided us with Mr. Rodriguez’s name and photos,” the department said. “We enlisted the help of the Lafayette Parish County Sheriff’s Office, which made contact with his family. The family then agreed to provide a DNA sample for comparison.”
Othram was then able to make a positive identification based on that DNA. Rodriguez had not been reported as a missing person.
“It is truly amazing what can be accomplished when you combine traditional investigative work with cutting-edge genomics and the support of the crowd,” Mittelman told Oxygen.com.
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