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1984 cold case homicide victim identified

POLK COUNTY- The dead body from a 1984 homicide cold case has been identified, according to the Polk County Medical Examiner’s Office.
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POLK COUNTY- The dead body from a 1984 homicide cold case has been identified, according to the Polk County Medical Examiner’s Office. 

An extensive upgrade to the FBI’s national database for fingerprints helped identify 39-year-old John Clifton Downey, a Caucasian male, in the February 1984 homicide on Des Moines’ east side

A call was received by the Examiner’s Office Thursday from the Latent Print Unit that this new technique had made a positive match of the victim. Within hours, the Examiner’s Office was able to find next of kin in another state using multiple search methods employed by the office. They have been notified of the death and confirmed the distinctive tattoos. The investigation of the homicide continues by the DMPD

On February 28, 1984, the largely decomposed remains of a male were found beneath some brush along a trail near East 24th and Scott in Des Moines. An investigation began at that time by the Des Moines Police Department and the Polk County Medical Examiner’s Office. Autopsy revealed injuries to the body and the manner of death was determined to be homicide. Distinctive clothing, surgical intervention and multiple distinctive tattoos were present on the decedent. Despite efforts at the time, the decedent was unable to be identified.

In 2008, the information on the case was entered into the national unidentified persons database, NamUS. Additional information was added over the years to include the only available thumbprint from the victim which was in the possession of DMPD. Over the years multiple leads were developed but met with dead ends.

In 2009, Medicolegal Death Investigators with the PCMEO began a renewed effort to identify the victim. Files were compiled from the various agencies who had investigated the case in the past, including additional information on the tattoos available on the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI) missing persons website which had been released to the public in March of 1984 with the hopes of identifying the victim. Newspaper articles were provided from the time of the original investigation by the Des Moines Register. The original Medical Examiner who conducted the autopsy was contacted but he had not retained any files on the case. 

In 2014, the FBI national database for fingerprints underwent an extensive upgrade, improving the capabilities of the system. In February of 2017, an agreement was reached between the FBI and NamUS to receive all of the fingerprint cards in that system, with over 1,500 cards being received. The Latent Print Unit at the FBI Laboratory in Quantico, Virginia then began to examine the records as latent prints. This required fingerprint examiners at the lab to identify the best areas of each print for the automated system to focus on. Potential matches were then manually compared by latent print examiners. Since February of 2017 there have been 178 successful identifications from the 1,500 cards submitted.