Case solved: North Creek man's remains finally identified
The man's identity was unknown for four years after his death until a team of forensic genealogists solved the case.
Last updated 4/10/2020 at 2:57pm
After 1,900 hours and a team spanning the country, the skeletal remains found on a North Creek property in January 2015 were identified as Nathaniel Terrence "Terry" (Davies) Deggs from New York. He had been living in a shed on the property for decades. He was known by a few people in Mill Creek as "Jerry."
Who was the man in the shed
Jay Worden lived in Mill Creek while he was in dental school on a property his father owned in the mid-1980s. It sat on about five acres of woods in North Creek. A former member of the Coast Guard, Worden rented rooms to other Coast Guard members and dental students.
One night, Worden went for a walk with his dog, who padded up to an old, fallen-down barn. An arch was the only thing left standing. Worden poked his head in and found a man around his same age sitting inside.
"He'd been living off apples. There was an old apple tree there and he'd been eating those; it was towards late fall, so the apples weren't very good," Worden said. He helped the man walk back to his house and gave him food so he could regain some strength. "He was pretty weak." Worden said he helped nurse him back to health.
That man was known only by the name "Jerry" for decades.
"When I first met him I thought he said 'Jerry.' He never corrected me," Worden said. "But I found out from his sister that his name was Terry."
Years after his death, it would be discovered that Jerry's full name was Nathaniel Terrence "Terry" (Davies) Deggs. He was born in Baltimore, Maryland, but moved to the Bronx in New York with a foster mom when he was young. He had 15 half-siblings, including three sets of twins. His family called him "Terry." They hadn't seen him for almost 30 years.
Terry's life in Mill Creek
Worden said that Deggs didn't tell him much about his past, except that he was from New York and had worked as a security guard in a bank.
"The bank got held up. Terry got pistol-whipped by the robbers. Then the bank fired him," Worden recalled. "After he got pistol-whipped, he kind of withdrew from society – I guess that really affected him."
Worden said he didn't know how Deggs came to Mill Creek, but Deggs told him he was headed to Hawaii.
Deggs would never go to Hawaii.
Instead, he spent nearly 30 years living in Mill Creek, almost off-the-grid.
"After that bank deal he disappeared, and [his family] never heard from him until the medical examiner got ahold of them," Worden said.
However, although no one knew his formal identity, Deggs was still known to people around him.
There was a shed on Worden's property, about 150 feet away from the main house, that he let Deggs use. It was smaller than a house, but it had a wood stove, a window and a neighbor who wasn't super close but wasn't too far away.
The shed was connected to electricity from the main house with a heavy-duty extension cord buried in the ground. Worden gave Deggs clothes and groceries, and let him take water from the main house. Worden said he was a little slow, "maybe a 7 out of 10," and seemed like a nice person.
Worden said there was no indication Deggs ever used drugs or drank alcohol. He said he thought the Mill Creek Police Department met Deggs and gave him clothes and groceries. He was never arrested or booked into custody, so there was no record that could help identify him years later.
Worden also said Deggs got to know his family. They lived next to each other for about five years. Deggs would sometimes watch Worden's son while he and his wife worked during the day, and even cooked for them sometimes – Worden said he would make a type of goulash concoction from rice and hamburger meat.
"He had penmanship like you'd never believe. His writing was absolutely beautiful," Worden said. "We wrote back and forth to each other for quite a few years after I left."
After five years of living next to each other, Worden graduated from dental school and moved to Coulee Dam in eastern Washington. The two kept in touch for a while, and Worden said he wished he'd kept some of the letters Deggs sent. Whenever he made the trip to Seattle for a conference, he would visit Deggs and bring him groceries or clothes.
Worden thought of bringing Deggs over to eastern Washington and building a place for him. But he found out he was not allowed to build another dwelling on his property because of space issues.
Although Worden left, it didn't mean that Deggs had to leave. Worden rented the house and told renters that he came with the property.
"I told [renters] there was a guy living out there, and he was harmless, and he was a good guy, and he's not going to bother ya – he never bothered anybody – and he'd come up for water," he said.
James Prater lived in the house for about a year with his family in the mid-'90s. He said he liked the wooded property because it looked like a good place to play paintball.
"He never bothered me. He kind of kept to himself," Prater said. "He was kind of slow, didn't talk a whole lot. He was nice – I kind of just got a good energy from him"
He said he would bring Deggs firewood or a big sack of potatoes as that's what Deggs said he liked. Prater said he installed a light in the shed and gave him a hot plate so he could cook his food. There were plum and apple trees on the property that Prater said he assumed Deggs ate from since he was doing the same thing.
"He used to wander those woods behind Bert's Tavern before they built those apartments and everything back in there," Prater said, describing the area. "But in 25 years it's grown up so much." He now lives in Clearview.
"How a man could live off the grid so close to everything for so many years – it's amazing," Prater said.
How DNA and genealogy solved the case
Investigators were alerted to unidentified human remains found in a shed on a North Creek property on Jan. 11, 2015. Snohomish County Medical Examiner Jane Jorgensen said there was no foul play suspected. It would be four years before the remains would be identified.
The man's remains were decomposed when discovered – investigators could only get a partial fingerprint from the right thumb. The Washington State Patrol and FBI couldn't find a match to it. They determined the remains were those of an African-American man in his 50s to mid-60s. They estimated he had died between nine months to two years before his remains were found. He was partially skeletonized and found lying in his cot under blankets, according to a statement from the Snohomish County Medical Examiner's office.
In February of the same year, investigators went back to the shed to see if they could find anything else to help identify the man. A dental exam revealed about 30 possible matches, but they were all ruled out after further investigation.
The FBI uploaded the case to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons databases. In March 2015, part of the right thigh bone was sent to a lab in Texas for DNA extraction. The DNA was run through the FBI database CODIS (Combined DNA Index System), but no match was found.
Investigators went back to the shed for a third time in August 2015. Many items were sent to the Washington State Patrol Missing and Unidentified Persons Unit and Crime Lab to be tested, but they couldn't find a match either. In 2016, forensic anthropologist Dr. Katherine Taylor examined the skull, and forensic artist Natalie Murry created a drawing of the man's face.
There were no leads. After all of the traditional methods had been exhausted, investigators turn to the DNA Doe Project for help in 2017.
The DNA DOE project is a nonprofit forensic genealogy organization that has helped law enforcement solve almost 20 Jane and John Doe cases since it was founded by doctors Dr. Colleen Fitzpatrick and Dr. Margaret Press in 2017. Forensic genealogists use DNA and traditional genealogy methods to reconstruct family trees to identify John and Jane Does.
First, they needed a DNA match. A forensics lab in Virginia took a sample from the left thigh bone. Then a lab in Georgia tested it for genome sequencing. It took a few tries because it was contaminated by bacteria. However, Dr. Gregory Magoon of Aerodyne Research in Massachusetts was able to extract enough data for it to be uploaded to an online database, called GEDmatch, in 2018.
GEDmatch is an online database where users can upload their DNA data tested by direct-to-consumer companies like Ancestry.com and 23andMe and compare their DNA to find relatives. Users choose to upload their data when they register with GEDmatch – no company is automatically sharing customers' DNA data with GEDmatch.
After users upload their DNA, GEDmatch might show them more matches than they initially thought they had from their first DNA test. The database contains DNA tested from multiple companies. Those who only test with Ancestry.com can only see DNA matches from Ancestry.com. GEDmatch can show them matches from other Ancestry users and from people who used 23andMe or other websites, and it has more tools for users to analyze their DNA.
The GEDmatch database became more popular after it was able to help law enforcement identify a suspect in the Golden State Killer case from California. After that, the site required users to opt-in to allow their DNA data to be seen by law enforcement using the database.
Finally, in February 2019, there was a break in the case.
A woman uploaded her DNA to GEDmatch and opted-in to share with law enforcement; it turned out she was a match, the man's half-first cousin. The DNA Doe Project contacted her and, although she didn't know her ancestry on her father's side, genealogists were able to build a family tree. It revealed that she and the unidentified man shared a grandfather.
Through her, the DNA Doe Project team reconstructed the man's family tree and found his half-siblings. His sister provided details about the man's life confirming the link to the man living in the North Creek shed.
Jenny Lecus lives in Wisconsin and was the lead forensic genealogist from the DNA Doe Project on the case. She spent 800 hours working to find the man's identity.
"He's very special to us, even though we didn't get to know him. Every case we have is extremely special, but there was just something extra here," she said.
She said she remembered how she felt when Jorgensen called to tell her about the man's sister. "That was one of the best days of my life. It was so exciting because his sister said, 'Yeah, I have a brother called Terry. His real name was Nathaniel, and we haven't seen him since the late '70s to early '80s.'"
Lecus said she spoke with Terry's sister, and learned he lived with his foster mom, but kept in touch with his original family. He was always included in the family's obituaries, even though they hadn't seen him in decades. "And if he hadn't been (included in the obituaries) we might still be wondering," she said.
"I don't have words to explain how it feels to finally know who he was," Lecus said.
Hope for future cold cases
With DNA and forensic genealogy, there is new hope for families and communities trying to determine unidentified remains.
Both Jorgensen and Lecus encouraged people to upload their DNA to GEDmatch and to opt-in to law enforcement viewing so more Jane and John Does can be identified in.
"We're not going to bury anyone anymore (before identification)," Jorgensen said in an interview.
Jorgensen said that Deggs's family will be able to make funeral arrangements now that he's been identified. She said they're planning to move him closer to the East Coast.
Worden was able to talk with Deggs's sister on the East Coast. "She was really appreciative to be able to talk to me about how he'd been doing. She was really thankful that I'd been helping him for all those years," he said.
"He was a good part of my life. I got a lot of good memories living with Terry," Worden said. "I'll miss him."
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story was posted Dec. 23. and spelled James Prater's name incorrectly. It has since been updated.