Facial composite of suicide victim known as "Lyle Stevik," who was found dead in a Washington hotel room in 2001. The man, whose family asked that his true identity remain secret, was identified through the DNA Doe Project using genealogy methods to find the man's relatives. (Image: Courtesy of the DNA Doe Project)

The DNA Doe Project, one of the first groups to apply forensic genealogy to criminal investigations nationwide, identified the victim of one of the most notorious 1980s cold cases last month. Now they have identified a motel suicide from 2001, using only the DNA to track down the surviving family members.

“Lyle Stevik” was a 25-year-old Californian who checked into a motel in a tiny town in western Washington without luggage, using a name that was later revealed to be a character from a 1998 novel by Joyce Carol Oates. The maid found him the next morning hanging with his leather belt around his neck, the other end tied to the room’s coat rack. He had left money on the nightstand with a note that said, simply, “For the Room.” Aside from the clothing on his body, and a toothbrush, there were no other clues to track down his real identity.

But it was the DNA that he left behind which pointed to online family trees—and has now connected the man to his real identity.

Handwritten notes left behind a motel guest before committing suicide in his room using a leather belt. "Lyle Stevik" turned out to be a fake name taken from a character from a 1998 Joyce Carol Oates novel. The man was ultimately identified using DNA genealogy techniques. (Credit: Courtesy of the International Center for Missing and Unidentified Persons)

“Cases like these are heart-breaking,” said the group’s co-founders, Colleen Fitzpatrick and Margaret Press, in a statement. “During those hundreds of hours there wasn’t one where we didn’t all think of the family he left behind. They are what kept us going.”

The Grays Harbor County authorities had spent more than 16 years trying to identify the man.

The DNA Doe Project contacted the local sheriff’s and coroner’s offices, and offered to take the case on earlier this year, according to Fitzpatrick and Press.

The two tabbed it a “Doe Fund Me” case—and they crowdsourced funds from around the globe to fund the time and tests in less than 24 hours.

The volunteer team of about 20 people spent hundreds of hours combing the GEDmatch database—an online public genealogical site—for potential links.

Fitzpatrick and Press told Forensic Magazine that the case was hugely time-consuming, including 20 volunteers spending hundreds of hours looking for links among 8,000 people. Originally they thought they had a promising series of second cousins among a population in Rio Arriba County, New Mexico. The Y-chromosome data included European heritage, and the mitochondrial showwed lineage from Native American sources. But the presnce of intermmariage and interrelation in the communities proved to complicate the picture - instead of second cousins, it was perhaps a third or fourth cousins that shared way more DNA because of shared genes.

But they were not deterred, even as they hit roadblocks, they said.

"The mantra is, 'It's just a matter of time,'" said Fitzpatrick.

"My mantra is, 'Follow the segments out of the spaghetti," said Press.

They identified a person through online searches - and a non-direct relative who had gone missing about 20 years earlier. Further detective work identified Lyle Stevik, they said.

Ultimately, the man’s identity was confirmed through fingerprints the man had left behind in life, which were provided by the family, according to the DNA Doe Project.

The family had believed the man was still alive, but just did not want to associate with his family.

The Grays Harbor Sheriff’s Office has said they don’t identify suicides, and the DNA Doe Project said the family wanted to keep the man’s identity a secret.

“We are thankful for all involved who helped finally solve this 16-and-a-half-year mystery,” the group said.

The solution to the case took much longer than last month’s breakthrough for the DNA Doe Project—that of the Buckskin Girl in Ohio. The unidentified female had been killed and left in a roadside ditch in April 1981. After decades of work on the case, local authorities got the break when Fitzpatrick and Press found a crucial DNA link on March 28, over the span of four hours on genealogy databases online.

These two genealogy breakthroughs—plus one made in the case of the suspected “Chameleon Killer” Terry Peder Rasmussen last year—may be overshadowed by the sensational capture of the serial killer and rapist known variously as the Golden State Killer, East Area Rapist and Original Nightstalker, which was announced on April 25. But all these matches have relied on the same public database in GEDmatch, which has approximately 900,000 DNA profiles that are public and made searchable by their users.