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Left: A driver's license photograph of Robert Ivan Nichols. Right: An age-regressed image of Nichols, depicting what he may have looked like in 1978. (Credit: Courtesy of the DNA Doe Project)

The old man killed himself with a gun in his Eastlake, Ohio apartment in the scorching month of July 2002. Upon discovery, the body was so badly decomposed that detectives couldn’t pull fingerprints. The name, they were pretty sure, was Joseph Newton Chandler III. But when police attempted to notify next of kin, and to find a beneficiary of the $82,000 he had saved, they found an empty lot where a supposed sister lived. Further investigation of a Social Security number determined that "Chandler" was really an 8-year-old boy who had died in a car crash in Texas in 1945.

The dead man, it seems, had something to hide. And when he was cremated under his pseudonym, it seemed he had covered all his tracks.

But he had left behind a tissue sample at a local hospital. And now at least part of the mystery has been uncovered by the DNA Doe Project, with the latest headline-grabbing breakthrough produced by forensic genealogy.

Chandler was really Robert Ivan Nichols, Indiana born, and 75 years of age at the time of his death in that sweltering apartment.

Nichols had been a World War II veteran who earned the Purple Heart—but who burned his uniforms after returning home. He had disappeared from his family in 1965, moved around the country, and ultimately established the Chandler identity in 1978, which lasted until his death. He has long been suspected of being a fugitive—perhaps even the infamous Zodiac Killer or long-sought skyjacker D.B. Cooper. The investigation into what Nichols was hiding continues.

But for now the biggest piece of the puzzle has been put into place, as announced by Pete Elliott, the U.S. Marshal for the Northern District of Ohio on Thursday.

“There is a reason he went missing in 1965, and assumed the identity of a deceased 8-year-old boy in 1978, and went hiding for so, so many years,” said Elliott.

The crucial tissue sample was found after the U.S. Marshals took over the investigation in 2014. It had been taken during a medical procedure in 2000. It didn’t hit anything in CODIS or other databases.

But Colleen Fitzpatrick was contacted in 2016 to see if genealogy connections could be used to track down the long-dead Chandler’s ancestry. Fitzpatrick’s company Identifinders Initial was the initial contact for Y-DNA analysis. But Fitzpatrick has since made splashy breakthroughs in long-unsolved cold cases through autosomal SNP analysis at the DNA Doe Project, a collaboration with fellow genealogy expert Margaret Press.

With the infamous Buck Skin Girl case - solved in April by the DDP - the challenges were all on the front end, about getting enough DNA from an unrefrigerated blood sample, Fitzpatrick told Forensic Magazine in an interview.

With the other success, reported last month, in the case of the Washington motel suicide known as Lyle Stevik, Press and Fitzpatrick said it was the intermarriage and the family connections which made it a distinct challenge.

But this was another case entirely.

"Chandler's case presented a different challenge because his DNA was so degraded," said Fitzpatrick. "Whole chromosomes were absent."

The Y-STR DNA was a first focus of Fitzpatrick's Identifinders' work. The search—using that patrilineal information, and run by proprietary software in public databases—found a single match to the surname Nicholas. A person they contacted had a keen interest in his heritage, and gave them the lead that his family had arrived in the New World in Virginia in 1720.

Another phase of the search began. It involved a workaround, as so often is the case with the complex genealogy cases that cannot access the direct-to-consumer sites such Ancestry and 23andMe.

They re-sampled the remaining tissue, and generated a new data profile—despite only 7 percent of the genome being left after 15 years’ preservation in paraffin.

There wasn’t even enough genetic information available to predict hair or eye color.

They ran that profile through GEDmatch—the public database that was crucial in most of the high-profile breakthroughs like the Golden State Killer suspect arrest in April.

They fine-tuned the DNA that was available, said Press. At first, there were only third- and fourth- cousin matches, she added. About 1,500 hours over several months were spent researching hundreds of family trees.

The last little bit of DNA was used in a second sequencing, to try and unearth a few more genetic clues. The two files were combined, and delivered on March 5.

It was like overlaying the “dots”—filling in parts of the picture, said Press.

One of the grandparents’ names was Schreiber—a name that had shown up in the first searches. The extra Schreiber “match” produced by the combining the two sequences was the wife - of a "Nichols." It trained the focus down to a family with four sons. Three of them were dead. But the fourth—Robert Ivan Nichols—had no death date.

What’s more, the family address was listed historically for decades as 1823 Center Street. That was the address of the vacant lot for the supposed sister of Chandler.

“When we compared those two documents, we said, ‘Bingo, we’ve got it,’” Press told reporters Thursday.

Follow-up confirmation was made with surviving relatives’ genes.

(Credit: Courtesy of the DNA Doe Project)

Phil Nichols, the son of Robert Ivan Nichols, was contacted in March. He said Thursday he was grateful for having answers about his long-lost father.

“Once I saw the photos, I knew it was him,” said the son. “I always hoped he had found a happy life somewhere.”

The police and marshals were impressed with the breakthrough.

“They were phenomenal,” said Elliott. “We’re searching fingerprint databases … we’re searching a lot right now.”

Robert Ivan Nichols lived at least part of the 1960s in California.

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