New forensic tool could help solve hiker case in Florida

The Collier County Sheriff’s Office wants to identify a man found dead in 2018 using a private DNA laboratory in Texas.
A pair of wood storks, left, and a large group of white ibis rest and feed in a wetland area off Loop Road in the Big Cypress National Preserve. Sixteen different species of wading birds live in the Everglades.
A pair of wood storks, left, and a large group of white ibis rest and feed in a wetland area off Loop Road in the Big Cypress National Preserve. Sixteen different species of wading birds live in the Everglades.
Published July 25, 2020

NAPLES, Fla. (AP) — It’s been two years since his was body was found inside a tent in Big Cypress National Preserve. But the man is still nameless.

The thru hiker, who went by trail names “Denim” and “Mostly Harmless,” interacted with others along the Appalachian and Florida trails. Detectives even have clear photos of him along the way.

Mostly Harmless appears to have died of natural causes, according to investigators. His body, weighing just 83 pounds, was found at Nobles Campground by two hikers on July 23, 2018.

He did not have a cellphone, credit cards or any form of identification. Inside his tent, located about five miles north of Interstate 75, were hiking gear, two notebooks and about $3,640.

The man was described as 35 to 50 years old, 5-foot-8 with a black and gray beard and hair. His unidentified body still lies at the District 20 Medical Examiner’s Office in East Naples.

“The medical examiner is responsible for his care and custody until we have a family member to turn him over to for final arrangements,” said Detective David Hurm of the Collier County Sheriff’s Office.

Investigators think the man has ties to New York state and Louisiana and might have worked in the technology industry. His death has drawn attention from the hiking community, folks in the tech industry and true crime fans.

Mostly Harmless’ story has been covered by news outlets across the country and Facebook groups with thousands of members have popped up with the purpose of combing through clues to try and identify him.

A three-part podcast with episodes focusing on the discovery of the man’s body, how missing person databases work and who Mostly Harmless met while hiking was released by the sheriff’s office in February 2019.

A fourth episode of the podcast was released on July 7 to reinvigorate public interest in the case. The episode focused on the contents of Mostly Harmless’ notebooks, which included protein bar recipes and code for an online game called Screeps.

A steady stream of tips related to the case has been coming into the sheriff’s office since the discovery of Mostly Harmless’ body. Many people who saw the man while hiking came forward during the first year of the investigation.

Most tips are currently coming in from people trying to connect Mostly Harmless to other missing person cases, Hurm said.

“We have virtually exhausted every technique and every avenue that we can explore right now,” Hurm said. “We need that person who actually has personal knowledge of my victim.”

Detectives previously determined they exhausted DNA searches through the national missing person’s databases in March.

Still, Hurm has hope the mystery will be solved as the sheriff’s office recently announced it was partnering with a private DNA laboratory in Texas to identify the man using a new technique in forensic genealogy.

The Texas laboratory, Othram Inc., solicits DNA from members of the public who are also hoping to help solve criminal cases with their personal information, through its database, according to the sheriff’s office.

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Othram will sequence Mostly Harmless’ DNA then a genealogist will use the sequence to build out a family tree using a public database. The process is expected to take at least several weeks but could lead investigators to a family member of Mostly Harmless, Hurm said.

“It’s been two years so another several weeks is a small price to pay for us, especially if we get a positive response,” Hurm said.

Even though investigators haven’t been able to locate any of Mostly Harmless’ family members, he still has people checking in and hoping to see the case resolved.

“If this was my brother, I would care that he gets his name back,” said Kelly Fairbanks, who met Mostly Harmless while he was hiking in the Florida Panhandle. “I would want that for my baby brother if he were in trouble or got distanced.”

Fairbanks met Mostly Harmless in Crestview, Florida, in January of 2018. A trail angel since 2016, she interacts with and supports thru hikers as they pass through her town.

Fairbanks was the first person to connect the sheriff’s office composite photo of the unidentified hiker to Mostly Harmless. She keeps up with the sheriff’s office investigation and is a member of a Facebook group dedicated to solving the case.

Mostly Harmless was conversational and had a big smile on his face when Fairbanks approached him while he was walking down the side of the road. She gave him a small bag of drink mixes and asked him if he was having any issues with the hike.

Mostly Harmless told her he wasn’t carrying a phone and was using a paper map of Florida to navigate the trail, Fairbanks said.

“He told me he started in New York and he was headed to Key West and I thought he must be doing okay because he made it this far,” Fairbanks said. “It is pretty unusual for a thru hiker not to carry a cellphone. He’s probably the only one I’ve ever met personally that didn’t have a cellphone.”

Much like she does with other thru hikers, Fairbanks offered to let Mostly Harmless shower and do laundry at her home, but he declined.

Although it’s not unusual for thru hikers to use trail names, as a way to further disconnect from real life, it was unusual that Mostly Harmless was not part of any thru hiker Facebook groups or using other tools for support while on the trails, Fairbanks said.

“I didn’t know he was there, and it was just a random chance encounter,” Fairbanks said. “Most hikers want assistance in case they have a problem. He was just definitely a one off from the normal.”

Fairbanks and Mostly Harmless spoke for about 20 minutes then he was on his way and was in good spirits, Fairbanks said.

Amelia Spires, a South Georgia woman, is one of hundreds of people who never met Mostly Harmless but have an interest in the case and work on their own time to try and solve it.

“Missing persons and unidentified people have always been sort of a fascination for me,” Spires said. “This one is just, it’s so frustrating and crazy.”

Spires created a Facebook group dedicated to identifying Mostly Harmless, which now has about 400 members. She spends several hours every day working on solving the case.

“We all have our own little methods and we just do what we can,” Spires said. “I share his flyer and I pick a state, it’s not very efficient and it’s very time consuming, but I pick a state and I work through that state.”

Spires will break each state down by county and post a flyer with information about Mostly Harmless in two groups from each county on social media then share the information with every newspaper, TV station and law enforcement agency in the state.

Her goal is to reach as many people who have not heard about the case as possible. The photos of Mostly Harmless are what have captured the attention of so many people who never met him, she said.

“We all see stories about Jane or John Does and a lot of times they just have skeletal remains,” Spires said. “Mostly Harmless looks like everybody’s brother-in-law, neighbor or just an average guy.”

Someone out there knows who Mostly Harmless is and it’s all about getting his photo to the right person, Spires said.

“As humans, it’s scary for us to think we could die alone and have nobody notice,” Spires said. “He’s someone’s child and someone knows who he is even if they aren’t looking for him.”

Hurm, who has worked in law enforcement for more than 26 years, said a couple things about the Mostly Harmless case stand out, such as the man’s miniscule body weight at the time of his death.

“I don’t believe there was anything from a medical standpoint that could have caused him to weigh what he did,” Hurm said. “He did not have any terminal diseases or wasting diseases we are aware of that would have been responsible for that.”

An autopsy report dated June of 2019 from the medical examiner’s office lists Mostly Harmless’ cause and manner of death as undetermined.

It appears Mostly Harmless died of intentional or unintentional lack of nutrition, which is odd because it seemed the hiker had the resources to obtain food and keep himself from starving to death, Hurm said.

The contents of Mostly Harmless’ notebooks, the protein bar designs and code, didn’t point investigators in any specific directions even after people with knowledge of the subjects looked at the notes, Hurm said.

“It’s another one of the curve balls in this case that isn’t easily explained,” Hurm said. “It was interesting that he was looking at nutritional values and things like that when his body was in the condition it was in.”

It’s hard for people to imagine an intelligent and healthy person dying the way Mostly Harmless did, especially without any electronic trail or traces of identity and that’s where the interest in this case comes from, Hurm said.

Through the intrigue and mystery of the case, Hurm sees a man and feels a responsibility to do what’s right for him.

“Mostly Harmless is my victim and right now the sheriff’s office is his sole representative,” Hurm said. “It’s our responsibility to try and get him back with family.”