The identity of a badly decomposed, partially dismembered man's body found near the Rigolets nearly three years ago has remained what St. Tammany Parish Coroner Dr. Charles Preston terms an "exquisitely frustrating" mystery.
Where did he die? At whose hands? And, most of all, who was he?
Those questions are still unanswered. But while the man remains nameless, he is no longer faceless, thanks to a clay model created by the Forensic Anthropology Computer Enhancement Services Lab in LSU's anthropology department.
The man's skull was turned over to scientists at the lab, better known as FACES, in December 2016 to develop a likeness that Preston hopes someone will recognize. The work was completed last week.
The lab estimates the man was between 60 and 80 years old, Preston said.
Investigators had little to go on when the body was discovered July 29, 2016, on a remote stretch of U.S. 90.
The owner of the land had been there at dusk on July 28 and had seen nothing, but by dawn the next day, he made the gruesome discovery. His testimony, combined with the fact that the grass under the remains was still green and relatively undisturbed, led to the conclusion that the man had been killed elsewhere and his body dumped east of Slidell overnight.
Some evidence at the scene led to speculation that the man might have been killed on the Gulf Coast, Preston said, but he declined to elaborate.
The body was missing some extremities, due to what Preston described as "non-surgical amputations," so there were no fingerprints. Without a reference point, dental evidence was of no help. The man's DNA was not found in national law enforcement databases or genetic genealogy databases, Preston said, with no hits on either the man or a close relative.
The body was in an advanced state of decomposition when discovered, with death apparently having occurred several weeks earlier.
The one physical clue, a large scar running down the center of the man's chest, showed he had undergone bypass surgery, a fact that the autopsy confirmed. But that didn't provide the key, either.
"We were so hoping he would have had an implantable device with a serial number," Preston said. But there was none.
The coroner cannot even reveal the cause and manner of death, because the law stipulates that the next of kin must be notified first. But Preston said that information has been shared with law enforcement.
"We ask the public to look at the pictures, apply their imagination, and see if they know of someone in that broad age range that might have been missing," he said. If so, he asked that they call the Coroner's Office at (985) 781-1150.
The coroner and St. Tammany Parish Sheriff's Office have gone to unusual lengths to crack the cold case, turning the body's DNA over to Parabon-NanoLabs to create what's called a phenotype based on the DNA. That was a first for the agency, Preston said.
According to that lab's findings, the man was likely of Southern European ancestry or a mixture of European and Middle Eastern ancestry. His skin was likely fair and not freckled, his eyes brown or hazel, his hair dark. That lab generated two potential visages, one at age 25 and the other at 65.
"To my eye, there is some commonality," Preston said of the phenotype images and the FACES re-creation, produced with vastly different technologies.
"That gives me a level of confidence that this gentleman probably did look something like one of these renderings," he said.
"It's not perfect science; it's not a snapshot. But it's a start," he said.