Human Skull Found Along Riverbanks In 1986 ID’d As Missing New Jersey Man
Officials in Pennsylvania have put a name to a John Doe whose partial remains were found more than 30 years ago.
In June 1986, a fisherman came upon a human skull on the banks of the Delaware River in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, just across from Trenton, New Jersey. But the identity of the John Doe would remain a mystery for decades until advances in genetic genealogy would make identification possible.
On Monday, the Bucks County District Attorney’s Office announced the man was determined to be Richard Thomas Alt, a 31-year-old Trenton resident last seen by his parents on Christmas Eve, 1984.
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He was reported missing soon into the new year.
“I can’t even imagine wondering and worrying about a lost family member for even a day, let alone for 37 years,” said Bucks County District Attorney Matthew D. Weintraub. “That wait is now over for Mr. Alt’s family. I’m just glad that we could give them some peace of mind with this identification and the eventual return of his remains to his family.”
Weintraub specifically thanked Othram, the Texas-based laboratory specializing in genetic genealogy — the now-common investigatory tool where experts conduct DNA testing to find a person’s possible relatives.
Photo: Bucks County District Attorney's Office
Thanks to Othram’s crowdfunding campaigns on DNASolves — where people can donate money to a number of unsolved cases so investigating agencies can utilize advanced tests like genetic genealogy — testing was made possible.
“This would not have been possible but for the technical expertise that Othram provided to us, for free,” Weintraub stated. “I hope that this powerful combination of technology and genealogy becomes the template for solving cold and current cases now and in the future.”
Othram CEO David Mittelman told Oxygen.com that testing for this particular case was entirely funded by Audiochuck - the media company that hosts a number of popular true-crime podcasts, including “Crime Junkie Podcast” and “Anatomy of Murder.”
The investigation began when officials say a fisherman found the skull near the Morrisville boat ramp and took it to the Buckingham Township Police Department, not far from where the man lived. There it remained until October 2019, when detectives in Bucks County took possession of the skull “during a probe of a homicide investigation.”
The skull was then transferred to the Bucks County Coroner’s Office, which entered the John Doe’s information into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUS).
Othram — which regularly works with helping fund NamUS cases — was enlisted to help Buck County detectives open a scientific line of inquiry into John Doe in September. According to Othram, experts extracted a sample from the skull and developed a DNA profile using forensic-grade genome sequencing.
Their in-house genetic genealogy team then developed investigative leads for law enforcement, which led them to a 49-year-old Florida woman.
She would turn out to be Alt’s daughter, who was 11 years old when her father disappeared.
On Jan. 4, the woman told investigators that Alt and his girlfriend were believed to have been the victims of murder.
Two fishermen found the girlfriend’s body in the Delaware River near Trenton in April 1985, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. She was identified as Laurie Suydam.
Little information about Suydam’s death was made public, though a spokesperson for the Mercer County prosecutor’s office said her case remains an unsolved homicide.
A cause of death was never determined from Alt’s skull, and despite Suydam’s homicide, there is nothing physical to suggest Alt was murdered so his case was classified as a missing persons case, according to the district attorney’s office.
Officials say the case is now closed.