Missoula Crime Lab helps identify human skull found in Montana in 2004
Phil Van Pelt and Erik Olson
RED LODGE (KPAX) - The Carbon County Sheriff's Office has identified a human skull found 18 years ago south of Red Lodge as a Wisconsin man, and detectives have opened up a case to find his killer.
Rogers "Roger" Lee Ellis left his home in Wisconsin in 1976 after he was facing legal problems related to an arrest for marijuana possession, and he was never heard from again.
Authorities believe he was hitchhiking and likely killed by the people he was traveling with, and they disposed of his body in Montana, the sheriff's office posted on its Facebook page Tuesday.
A hiker discovered the skull on June 20, 2004, and search teams later discovered additional bones that they determined to be from a man between 15 and 32.
But a DNA search from a national database at the time turned up nothing, so the case went cold.
"We often reached a point where we couldn’t go any further. The DNA wasn’t developed far enough along to get a true identity," Carbon County Sheriff Josh McQuillan told MTN News Tuesday.
This year, the Carbon County Sheriff's Office worked with the Missoula County cold case team and federal investigators to launch a genetic genealogy investigation, using the latest developments in DNA science.
The bones were sent to a Texas facility called Othram's Lab to build a DNA profile, which investigators used in the genealogical search to identify Ellis.
The DNA of Ellis's niece matched on the ancestry website, and "from there we were able to contact her mother, who was the sister of Rogers Ellis, and able to make a positive identification through that DNA match," Carbon County Sheriff's Office Det. Ben Mahoney told MTN News.
Injuries on Ellis's skull pointed to death by blunt force trauma, which is why the case is now being investigated as homicide, according to McQuillan.
Carbon County detectives are now working with counterparts in Wisconsin to learn more about Ellis and his whereabouts before he left for Montana or identify cases similar to his.
"It’s a win all the way around I would say. More so for the family. Mr. Ellis went missing in December of '76. That was the last time any family members had contact with him. They’ve been sitting there this whole time wondering, so, just to give them some closure is a big win for us. Not to mention our selfish side of all the investigators through the last 18 years that have worked on this case. To be able to get a positive identification and at least put that chapter to rest," Mahoney added.
They also developed composite drawings to show what Ellis might have looked like.
"We hold that hope and we’re going to track every lead down that we get. And do everything we can to try to find the person or persons involved in this," said Mahoney.
Anyone with information related to this case should contact Carbon County Sheriff’s Office Detective Mahoney at 406-445-7284 or firstname.lastname@example.org.