1976 Montana ‘John Doe’ victim identified as Wisconsin Rapids man

Rogers “Roger“ Lee Ellis
Rogers “Roger“ Lee Ellis(Contributed sketch)
Published: Nov. 29, 2022 at 1:18 PM CST|Updated: Nov. 30, 2022 at 6:52 PM CST
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RED LODGE, Mont. (WSAW) - A Wisconsin Rapids man who was reported missing in 1976 has been identified as a murder victim in a Montana cold case.

On June 20, 2004, a hiker discovered a human skull approximately 15 miles south of Red Lodge, Montana. Law enforcement responded with search teams and recovered a femur and pelvic bone. Subsequent forensic analysis determined that the bones came from the same individual and indicated that they belonged to a male between the ages of 15 and 32. DNA from the remains were entered in the Missing and Unidentified Remains section of the national Combined DNA Index System, but there was no match with a relative donor.

This year, with assistance from the US Department of Justice, the FBI, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs), and the Missoula County Sheriff’s Office Cold Case team, Carbon County Sheriff’s Office initiated a genetic genealogy investigation to leverage new developments in DNA science. The skeletal evidence was sent to Othram’s lab in The Woodlands, Texas.

Othram used Forensic-Grade Genome Sequencing® to build a comprehensive DNA profile from the skeletal remains and this DNA profile was returned to the investigators that used the profile in a genealogical search. This investigation resulted in the identification of the remains as those of Rogers “Roger” Lee Ellis, who was born in Wisconsin Rapids in 1954. “While finding a DNA match is crucial, especially in such a longstanding cold case, it’s really just the first step for detectives to begin their investigation,” says Wood County Sheriff’s Department Investigator Bren Derringer.

The investigation revealed that in 1976, Ellis was facing legal issues related to an arrest for marijuana possession. Ellis told his family he didn’t want to go to jail and that he was going to head west. Ellis had no further contact with his family.

Investigators believe Ellis was hitchhiking when he left Wisconsin in December 1976. Authorities believe he was killed by the person or persons with whom he was traveling and they left his body in Montana and continued on their way. Detective Ben Mahoney, Carbon County Sheriff’s Office, says, “Record keeping from the mid to late 70s is challenging at best. I’ve reached out to several surrounding counties around us to see if anyone had contact with him. That entails a box of index cards that people have to physically go through one at a time to see if he had contact.”

Derringer says, “We rely on scientists to tell us what they found in their analysis.” He adds that Carbon County will be taking the lead on the investigation since the remains were found there, but cracking an old case is no simple task. He believes that the same technology that allowed them to find a match for this victim could be useful for other cases in Wood County.

The sheriff’s department in Montana has launched a cold case homicide investigation. This investigation will rely on information from those who knew Ellis in the 1970s. CCSO is working with detectives in Wisconsin and neighboring jurisdictions to try and identify additional information about Ellis and any friends and associates in 1976, as well as identify any other similar cases in the region during that time frame that may help identify those responsible for ending this young man’s life.

Anyone with information related to this case should contact Carbon County Sheriff’s Office, Detective Mahoney at 406-445-7284 or bmahoney@co.carbon.mt.us. You can also contact the Wood County Sheriff’s Department at Sheriff@co.wood.wi.us or 715-431-8700.