A Case 42 years in the Making, Othaniel Philip Ames Has Been Found-Stilly Doe Mystery Solved


The Snohomish County Medical Examiner Offices’s (SCMEO) staff announced the identification of “I-5 Stilly Doe,” an individual who had been found in the Stillaguamish River near I-5 in 1980 but had been unidentified for the intervening 42 years. Using advanced DNA extraction techniques and genetic genealogy, investigators were able to eventually track down relatives of Othaniel Philip Ames and confirm he was their missing ancestor. “New tools and advancements in technology were really the key factor in allowing us to identify Ottie,” said SCMEO Lead Medical Investigator Jane Jorgensen. “And it is extremely satisfying to be able to reunite Mr. Ames with his family.”

Othaniel moved to Washington with his wife and children, where he worked in a paper mill and had a small dairy farm in Arlington. Othaniel had a passion for woodworking and winemaking, and was considered a family man. However, in the early 1960s Othaniel and his wife separated and according to his great niece Nancy Van Buskirk “we never got a reason for why they split up, and we often wondered if something happened between them to cause this.” After separating from his wife, Othaniel moved to a small cabin in the woods of Arlington where he lived a mostly solitary life.

Now by himself, Othaniel lived a semi self-sufficient life style with no electricity or plumbing, and mostly grew and hunted for his food. “We visited him a couple of times at his cabin with my father, and I remember him having an outhouse in the middle of a tree stump. He was very secluded up there and I think he liked that,” said Van Buskirk. Nancy’s father was somewhat close to her great uncle, due to him having stayed with Othaniel and his family in 1950s. “My father was a drinker, and moved to Washington to stay with Ottie and his family to find a job for the rest of us to eventually move over here.” After moving to the cabin, contact with his immediate family became infrequent leading to many family members not knowing what he was up to.

“I remember our family not liking him very much,” said Van Buskirk. “The times we did visit him I remember him being very stubborn and strict. He wouldn’t speak to one of our family members due to his hair being too long.” According to Van Buskirk, Othaniel was also abusive to his many dogs that he owned and would beat them if they did not perform tricks correctly which really bothered the rest of the family. “It was always rumored that he may have had throat cancer, so we think that may have had an impact on his life and attitude as well.”

In September 2018, the late Dr. Kathy Taylor, who was the WA State Forensic Anthropologist, performed an exam on the remains and estimated the decedent to be an adult male, likely Caucasian, and possibly Hispanic or Native American. She estimated “I-5 Stilly Doe” to be between 5ft 5in and 5ft 9in and between 45-59 years old when he died. No evidence of drowning was found, however there was a severe coronary artery disease present. Evidence of well-healed rib and spinal compression fractures were also found in the exam. However, Van Buskirk and her family have other theories on how Othaniel had passed. “We think he might have been depressed and possibly suicidal,” said Van Buskirk. “He mentioned to my mother one time that he wanted to go out in the woods and die like an Indian.”

Further suspicions arose when Othaniel began giving away his belongs to family members and people he knew. According to Van Buskirk he gave his cabin to a young nurse he knew from his time at a retirement home; however, the family never knew or met this person. Van Buskirk received a jewelry box from Othaniel, while here sister was given his car and rifles. “Apparently he put a bunch of money in bags and sent them to family living in Oregon, however nobody ever received any of it so it may have been stolen,” said Van Buskirk.

The body of Othaniel Philip Ames was found in the Stillaguamish River in Arlington, Washington on July 23, 1980 by a fly fisherman. “We were never close, and never knew what ended up happening to him until now,” said Van Buskirk.  Despite not being close with him, Van Buskirk and the rest of the family are happy to have found Othaniel and consider this event to be good news. “We are incredibly proud of the long line of people in the Medical Examiner’s Office and elsewhere who continued to pursue this case from 1980 until today,” said Snohomish County Medical Examiner Dr. Matthew Lacy. “As technologies advanced and we had new tools to use, we kept making progress until we found out who this gentleman was. Not matter how long it takes, we want to make sure people can be returned to their families.” Currently, the SCMEO is working on uncovering four more unidentifiable cases, with hopes on finding answers to who they are soon.