MARION — Back in 2003, authorities in Flathead County found the remains of a deceased man in the small community of Marion located 20 miles west of Kalispell.
Close to 20 years later, the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office through the work of the nonprofit DNA Doe Project, identified the man as Steven Gooch of Washington.
When Steven Gooch’s family last heard from him in 1995, he was 29 years old. According to his family, he was in San Diego and was possibly headed to Las Vegas.
The family reported him missing in 1996 after not hearing from him again.
“Our mission is to give the names back to these John and Jane Does and reunite their remains with their families that have been missing them,” said DNA Doe Project Genealogist Cairenn Binder.
The DNA Doe Project is a nonprofit made up of volunteers partnering with law enforcement to provide investigative genetic genealogy solving cases of unidentified remains.
Since its inception in 2017, they have solved more than 70 cases.
“And the way we do that is we use DNA testing, a newer type of DNA testing to build family trees for John and Jane Does and ultimately discover their identities,” said Binder.
Binder said 18 volunteers from across the country worked tirelessly to identify Steven Gooch, going through hundreds of DNA sequences before finding a match.
“And we communicate completely online so, we have a bunch of different platforms that we use to communicate,” added Binder.
Binder said her team uses forensic genetic genealogy, allowing matches to come from distant relatives, not just immediate family.
“In traditional DNA testing you need a very close relative of the John or Jane Doe to confirm their identity so, for example a brother or sister or mother or father or son or daughter, whereas in the DNA testing that we’re doing we can use third, fourth cousin matches to build family trees and eventually come to the identity of the John or Jane Doe." - DNA Doe Project Genealogist Cairenn Binder.
Through a match of a distant relative, the DNA Doe team came up with a list of possible descendants with a stronger relation to Steven Gooch.
“And the first descendant that our law enforcement partners contacted happened to be somebody that had a missing son, and so that was sort of the final resolution of the case that led to the identification of Steven Gooch,” said Binder.
Flathead County Sheriff Brian Heino said it was an honor to bring closure to the family after all these years.
“Again, I think a lot of it is that unknown plagues a lot of families and this is one of those that it provided that closure at the end like, they finally know what happened to their loved one and I think that’s probably the best part of this whole event,” said Heino.