[THE QUIET MAN] | A John Doe Points to Zodiac Killer

A version of this article by the same author originally ran as “The Curious Case of the Unknown Man” in PressureLife Magazine

“A guy needs somebody to be near him. A guy goes nuts if he aint’ got nobody.
                   Don’t make no difference who the guy is, as long’s he’s with you.
              I tell ya, I tell ya a guy gets too lonely an’ he gets sick.

–John Steinbeck; Of Mice and Men

The old man kept to himself. He said little and was seen less. He had few friends and even fewer possessions. With the doors and windows locked, several days had passed before the overripe stench coming from his apartment became unbearable and the landlord was forced to enter. The old man’s body was face down in the bathroom. His hand still clung to the .38, it shell casing not far apart. A week of decomposition in the dead of summer left the scene a fetid travesty. Responding officer, Joe Truczak, had to wait to enter until gasmasks and respirators arrived. The Eastlake police report cites “thousands of maggots were on and around the body, mostly the head.” With no apparent next of kin to claim the body, the man whose identification read ‘Joseph Newton Chandler’, was cremated. As Officer Truczak explained over the phone, “For a gentleman who lived that identity for so long there was no reason at the initial point in the investigation to feel that he was anybody but Joseph Newton Chandler.” The original case report ends with, “…apparent cause is suicide. Case closed.”

…Until it wasn’t.

It was not long before peculiarities began appearing in the case. When police interviewed Mike Onderisin, an estranged co-worker that Chandler listed executor of his will, he remembered Chandler as a man of distinct peculiarities. An electrical savant, Chandler fashioned headphones that broadcast white noise to drown out the rest of the world and breaker boxes that changed the channel anytime commercials ran. The man lived in the same one bedroom apartment since 1986 and yet had next to no possessions. “Very mundane,” Truczak remembered, “very few personal items in the residence. Hanging in the closet he had very few articles of clothing. It’s almost like someone barely lived there.” Onderisin, like the rest of the world, assumed Chandler to be little more than a queer old man, whose only crime was a painfully isolated existence. It was not until a cursory search into his social security number revealed that his alleged identity traced back to an eight-year-old boy who died in a Tulsa, Oklahoma car crash on Christmas Eve, 1945. The man who committed suicide in 2002 was an imposter and had been living under the lie since he relocated to Cleveland in 1979.

John Doe at a costume party during the late 80s. The photo is one of the few possessions that survived his death.

“He could be anybody,” explained US Marshal, Peter Elliott, when I met with him at his downtown office. “People that assume other people’s names and live covertly for a number of years under that name and went through all the cautions he did are usually someone on the run.” Elliott added, “I think when it’s all said and done its going to be someone who’s been on the run for something significant.” Whoever the man was, he was careful not to leave a trail. He paid for everything in cash. He kept to himself and made little associations from the day he materialized in Cleveland in 1979, seemingly from nowhere, until the day he ended his life. Aside from a partial lifted from an ashtray, no prints were recovered from the scene or the body, which had been cremated shortly after its discovery without taking DNA evidence or performing an autopsy.

By the time local police realized the simple suicide was anything but, any potential evidence had been lost or damaged. This includes the murder weapon that, “due to condition and manner in which weapon was stored, any fingerprint evidence would have been destroyed,” according to an Eastlake police report. John Doe had a home computer, which, as stated in the same police report, “was accidently dropped, broken, and discarded when property was being moved.” Elliott lamented, “The computer was lost which would have been great for us. We would have been able to find some stuff on that.” Reluctantly, Elliott considered, “If they would have thought he was someone else I think they would have put more effort into trying to find more fingerprints.” Officer Truczac shares Elliott’s concerns, “If there would have been questions regarding his identity then there would have been more done at the initial point.”

Two years after his death, Onderisin grew impatient and filed an official complaint with Eastlake Police Department in order to determine any of John Doe’s potential heirs. Lieutenant Tom Doyle’s formal response read in part, “This investigation has consumed many, many man-hours but is noncriminal in nature. Although we desire to provide closure to some family’s mystery and to return property to family members nothing is occurring, nor is anything anticipated with this case.” His explanation was similar when we talked, “I was making a case to the judge that we don’t have any standing in this case, the city of Eastlake. It’s taken up lots of time and it’s going nowhere and it’s a civil matter. It doesn’t involve us. It doesn’t even have an allegation of a crime. … I can’t speak for the Chief of Police but I know that there is no interest in it. They don’t have the time or interest to pursue something that is just a great curiosity.”

Since the mystery began, there has been no shortage of theories. Perhaps most sensational is the possibility he and the Zodiac Killer, the serial killer who stalked southern California in the late sixties to early seventies, are one in the same. As unlikely as it may seem, when I asked Marshal Elliott if he ruled out the potential, his answer was immediate and without reproach, “No, not at all. We have not ruled anything out, including that.” A photo of John Doe, with his physical appearance regressed to how he would have appeared in the late seventies, finds striking similarities to the infamous police sketch of the Zodiac Killer. The two share similar glasses, male pattern baldness, knobbed chins and the same distinct bent bridge to their noses. At five foot seven inches, John Doe was distinctively shorter than an average man. Nearly every report given to police had Zodiac at the same height. Elliott mentioned during our meeting, “What’s going to rule out a lot of people is their height.”

While circumstantial and subjective, there are many unsettling connections between John Doe and the Zodiac Killer

Mia Marcum, the Ohio director for the Doe Network, which works to identify unknown persons, said as much when she wrote to the Eastlake police while they were still investigating. Although much of what John Doe claims has to be considered dubious at best, Marcum drew light to his listed previous work experience which places him in California at the same time as the Zodiac. Even if his work history was fabricated, it would seem counter-intuitive to fabricate a past so geographically tied to the one you’re attempting to escape, that is, unless you’re modeling your life as a different Joseph Chandler all together.

Stay with me, because here’s where we go down the rabbit hole…

Born in 1950, there was a third Chandler, a Joseph Nelson Chandler living in San Rafael, California at the same times as the Zodiac murders. (For clarity’s sake we will refer to this third man as “Nelson” for the rest of the article) While Nelson is innocent of any such crimes, Zodiac and/or John Doe may have been someone he worked with or lived near. Consider that after crossing the San Rafael Bridge into the rest of California, a circuitous stretch of highway crosses through Vallejo, Bencia, Napa, and Modesto, all sites of Zodiac’s murders. Our John Doe’s alleged work history also sees his employment near another two California crime scenes of Zodiac’s, Lompac and Riverside.

After reviewing what straws I could grasp, a theory emerged. After fleeing California, the Zodiac and/or our John Doe would be looking for an alias. The Tulsa crash of 1945, which was featured in several papers, would have drawn his attention. It was common for children in rural areas at the time not to be automatically registered with social security. The child’s death would leave John Doe with an opportunity to exploit. But more importantly, the boy shared the same name as another man in the area, his possible acquaintance, Joseph Nelson Chandler. Was this a means to hide in plain sight? Any superficial look into his connection to California in the late 1960’s would only become muddied when invariably confused with Joseph Nelson Chandler from San Rafael. It should be noted, if even circumstantially, Nelson and the child also shared their name with the lead investigator who failed to apprehend the Zodiac’s personal hero, Jack the Ripper. Ripper was favored by the Zodiac and even mentioned in his notes. Additionally, a non-existent emergency contact given by John Doe, “Mary Wilson”, also shares her name with another English serial killer of the same era. The odds would be too great to pass up for a mind bent on patterns and riddles as the Zodiac’s.  

What we do know as fact is that John Doe made his first known appearance under his new alias while requesting a “copy” of his birth certificate (that of the actual Joseph Newton Chandler) to be mailed to a dilapidated shack in Rapid City, South Dakota In 1978. There, he then used the fraudulent certificate to obtain a social security card. The Rapid City Journal has local Detective Tom Senesac looking back in retrospect, “The fact that a forty-one-year-old man was requesting a social security card should have sent up a red flag at the time”.

A year later, John Doe settles in Cleveland and lived the rest of his life in obscurity until he ended it all on June 24th, 2002. Curiously, eight years earlier, on the same day John Doe would commit suicide, Nelson died unexpectedly at age 44 in 1994. This is the same year our John Doe stops receiving social security benefits after switching his work to that of a contracted employee. Was this done in fear of drawing attention to a social security account which would have had the actual benefit contributions of one man (John Doe), the listed work history of another (Nelson), and the registered numbers of a dead child (Tulsa Boy)? Elliott informed me that in 1994, John Doe told his friend, Bob Onderisin, that unspecified people “were closing in on him” and that he would have to “lay low for a while”. There is a period of time during that year that, to this day, is unaccounted for in his records.

Eight years later, on the very anniversary that Nelson died, our John Doe locks the doors to his apartment and eats the barrel of a .38. Was the date significant to him? Had the years alone and the recent diagnosis of advanced rectal cancer left him looking at the date as an enviable swansong to exit on? Is that why the day after is blacked out with an “X” on the calendar found in the apartment, as if he knew that the 24th held an inescapable terminus fated for both men? Was the parallel one last riddle for the Zodiac to leave behind, a symbolic tip of the hat to the man who’s life he adopted for so many years?

I relayed the theory to Marshall Elliott. “It has me looking at certain things in a new light,” he offered. His answer was non-committal but better than the tinfoil hat for which I assumed I’d be fitted. After a subsequent search, Elliott could not confirm John Doe’s alleged California work history and conceded that particular Zodiac angle would need more conclusive evidence to move forward. Even still, he encouraged me not to give up the ghost. “I have something else I want you to look into,” he suggested. “There were some unsolved murders in East Liverpool in the seventies that might be interesting to the case.”

 With my answers only resulting in more questions toward John Doe’s true identity, I had to cop to a level of disappointment in being unable to conclusively link him to the Zodiac Killer of the 1960’s, despite compelling circumstantial evidence. Marshal Elliott offered sage advice, reminding me that in this line of work you’ll bang your head against quite a few brick walls until a door emerges. But there was something else he offered me; a new lead.

In early interviews with Elliott, John Doe’s estranged coworker, Mike Onderisin, mentioned that John Doe talked briefly of spending time as a child in East Liverpool, Ohio. Elliott drew my attention to the application John Doe filled out when he applied for his apartment. On it, he listed a bank account in East Liverpool. Unlike his work history, this lead was verified and served as one of the few tangible footprints he left behind.

Near the West Virginia border, East Liverpool is a peculiar mix of quaint living with a history of violent mob activity. It didn’t take me long to unearth the murders the marshal had in mind. In 1973, furniture store owner, Earl Tweed, was savagely murdered along with a pregnant Linda Morris and her four year old daughter. Despite occurring in the middle of the day on a busy street, no one saw a thing and the man slipped into the nearby woods never seen again. While compelling, there was nothing, with my limited reach, that could connect to John Doe. Over the years many people have been considered for the murders, including our John Doe, but it was a lesser known murder that occurred in East Liverpool two years earlier, in 1971, that caught my eye.

An unidentified man was pulled from the rivers that run through the woods of Jethro Hollow. His hands and feet were bound behind his back with electrical wire. He had been strangled to death before being tossed into the churning waters. His body was too far degraded by the time he was dredged to surface for forensics to provide an accurate identity. It was a gangland style execution that remained without a clue until a random call to Eastlake Law Director, Charles Payne, in 1993. An unidentified male contacted his office inquiring about Ohio’s policy on the death penalty. He said that he wanted to confess to a murder but was fearful of capital punishment. While not confessing outright to the murder, he knew intimate details about the man that were never released to the public before adding that the victim was an innocent man. The unknown caller claimed he was searching for forgiveness after having found Christ five years prior to the hesitant confession. The man hung up before anything more could be learned and he was never heard from again.

Remember, the year following this confession our John Doe goes off the grid for several months after confiding to Onderisin that, “they were getting close”. Did his brief disappearance have less to do with the Zodiac Killer and more to do with the reluctant admission East Liverpool Law Director, Charles Payne, received? Onderisin’s speculation that John Doe spent a childhood in East Liverpool and his confirmed bank account places him in the region at the time of the 1971 mob-style execution. If he was complicit in a mob-related murder, it would not be a stretch to imagine contacts within the organization furnishing our John Doe with a fresh identity to avoid any possible recriminations coming home to roost.

 When I first began this story I held no expectations of solving The Curious Case of the Unknown Man. As tantalizing as the possibility of bringing the Zodiac Killer to justice was, if even posthumously, I knew I was far from the first to try and work the disparate puzzle pieces into some coherent picture of the past. I truly feel that I came close but without more resources and the reach that law enforcement can exercise, I had to close the book on the case just like the original police report had fourteen years ago. Perhaps his crimes were closer to home, as his East Liverpool ties suggested. He could have been hiding from a jilted wife, or someone he could have swindled. Unlike the US Marshal, I have my doubts as to whether we will ever know the true identity of the lonely old man who took his life in a small apartment in 2002.

As I search for a proper ending to a tale that may never have one, I sit in the bedroom of my own small apartment, and can only imagine the loneliness that his seclusion brought him, that empty hole where family and friends fit. Living a lie, pretending to be someone you are not for so many years, I have to wonder, just whose memories are they that he looked back upon in his final years? Which identity owns the regrets that he took with him to the grave? Whether we ever learn his origin or whether he remains a stranger to all of us, there are things we do recognize in him. He is loneliness and regret. He is depression and paranoia. He is every one of us who has ever felt like a stranger in their own skin or never found a place to call home. In that tragedy bond, we’ve always known who the Unknown Man is.

Evidence photos taken upon discovery. John Doe had very few possessions in his apartment. It was reported personally to this article’s author by Marshal Elliott that the computer was damaged during police transit without being able to learn what may have been on it.

In early interviews with U.S. Marshal Peter Elliott, I learned that John Doe’s estranged coworker, Mike Onderisin, mentioned that John Doe talked briefly of spending time as a child in East Liverpool, Ohio. Elliott drew my attention to the application John Doe filled out when he applied for an apartment. On it, he listed a bank account in East Liverpool. Unlike his work history, this lead was verified and served as one of the few tangible footprints he left behind.

Sharing a border with neighboring West Virginia, East Liverpool’s legacy is as idyllic as it can be infamous. It was here that notorious mobster, Pretty Boy Floyd, finally bought the farm after being gunned down in cornfield. Once known as the pottery capital of America, here, quaint Appalachian living buttresses against a violent history of mobsters and murders dating back to the times of prohibition rum runners hustling across state lines. In the few years preceding John Doe’s spontaneous Cleveland arrival, East Liverpool was caught amid a rash of unsolved murders. Most famously and most tragically, in 1973, furniture store owner, Earl Tweed, was savagely murdered along with a pregnant Linda Morris and her four year old daughter. Despite occurring in the middle of the day on a busy street, no one saw a thing and the man slipped into the nearby woods never to be seen again. Despite being considered by other investigators as a compelling suspect, there was nothing within my limited reach I could use to connect John Doe.

Two years prior to the Tweed murders, an unidentified man was pulled from the rivers that run through the woods of East Liverpool’s Jethro Hollow. The victim’s hands and feet were bound behind his back with electrical wire, which was also used to strangle him to death before being tossed into the churning waters. His body was too far degraded by the time he was dredged to surface for forensics to provide an accurate identity. It was a gangland style execution that remained without a clue until a random call to Eastlake Law Director, Charles Payne, in 1993. According to East Liverpool’s own historical society’s records, an unidentified male contacted his office inquiring about Ohio’s policy on the death penalty. He said that he wanted to confess to a murder but was fearful of capital punishment. While not confessing outright, he knew intimate details that were never released to the public, before adding that the victim was an innocent man. The unknown caller claimed he was searching for forgiveness after having found Christ five years prior to the hesitant confession. The man hung up before anything more could be learned and was never heard from again. I reached out to Charles Payne, who still practices law in East Liverpool, but made it no further than his secretary.

Remember, the year following this confession our John Doe goes off the grid for several months after confiding to Onderisin that, “they were getting close”. Did his brief disappearance have less to do with the Zodiac Killer and more to do with the reluctant admission East Liverpool Law Director, Charles Payne, received? Onderisin’s speculation that John Doe spent a childhood in East Liverpool and his confirmed bank account places him in the region during the spate of unsolved murders. If he was complicit in a mob-related murder, it would not be a stretch to imagine contacts within the organization furnishing our John Doe with a fresh identity to avoid any possible recriminations coming home to roost. I reached out to the Organized Crime Division of the State Attorney General office for insight but they, like Payne’s office, have yet to respond. 

When I first began this story I held no expectations of solving The Curious Case of the Unknown Man. As tantalizing as the possibility of bringing the Zodiac Killer to justice was, if even posthumously, I knew I was far from the first to try and work these disparate puzzle pieces. Without more resources and the reach that law enforcement can exercise, I had to close the book on the case just as the original police report had fourteen years prior. Unlike Marshal Elliott, I have my doubts as to whether we will ever discover the true identity of Cleveland’s Unknown Man.

Searching for a proper ending to a tale that may never have one, I sit alone in the bedroom of my own small apartment and can only imagine the loneliness that his seclusion brought him, that empty hole where family and friends fit. Living a lie, pretending to be someone you are not for so many years, I have to wonder, just whose memories are they that he looked back upon in his final years? Which identity owns the regrets that he took with him to the grave? Whether we ever learn his origin or whether he remains a stranger to all of us, there are things we do recognize in him. He is loneliness and regret. He is depression and paranoia. He is every one of us who has ever felt like a stranger in their own skin or never found a place to call home. In that tragic bond, we’ve always known who the Unknown Man was.

UPDATE: Since the original publication of my article for PressureLife, the John Doe in question has been identified at Robert Nichols. What is interesting is how the connections between the Zodiac Killer still remain intact in light of this information. The man’s connection to unsolved crimes may only be beginning. Here’s is an article explaining more about Nichols and his potential connection to a different unsolved crime.

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