35 Years Later, the Remains Known as ‘Chimney Doe’ Have a Name and a Face

In September 1989, the owners of the Good ‘n Loud Music store in Madison, Wis., made a grisly discovery: a human skull seen through a pipe connecting the boiler to the chimney. Further investigation uncovered a full skeleton with a faded, paisley dress and pointed heels.

For years, the unidentified bones were locked in a cabinet in the Dane County Medical Examiner’s Office, which estimated that the remains had been in the chimney for anywhere from two months to two years.

An autopsy determined that the skeleton belonged to a thin man, who was 5 feet 7 inches tall and between 18 and 35 years old. For decades, he came to be known as Dane County Doe, or Chimney Doe, featured in television programs about cold cases and unsolved mysteries with a sculpted reconstruction of his face.

Now, his name has been returned to him: Ronnie Joe Kirk.

He was born in Tulsa, Okla., in 1942, was adopted and had family ties to Wisconsin, Madison police officials said at a news conference on Monday. They described a breakthrough using DNA and genetic genealogy techniques that have revolutionized cold-case work in recent years.

The identification has relaunched a Madison Police Department investigation that had idled for decades.

“There’s that renewed momentum,” the case’s lead detective, Lindsey Ludden, said in an interview. “We finally have a name.”

Detective Ludden said officers did not yet know the circumstances of Mr. Kirk’s death, but said that investigations would continue.

She asked her supervisors for the case in 2018 after she had observed other, long-dormant cases get revived through DNA techniques, such as those used on fossils and other ancient materials, as well as family tree databases.

In the spring of 2018, Joseph James DeAngelo, known as the Golden State Killer, was arrested in connection with more than 50 rapes and 12 murders with the use of DNA evidence taken from crime scenes that matched a profile in an online genealogy database.

“That type of investigation just blew up, and now hundreds and hundreds of cases have been resolved using this type of technique,” said Kelly Harkins Kincaid, a paleogenomics specialist and the chief executive of Astrea Forensics, which specializes in extracting DNA from degraded samples.

Detective Ludden sent strands of hair recovered from the chimney to Astrea. Because the hair was covered in grime, Dr. Kincaid said, it took the lab nine months to extract enough DNA for genomic sequencing.

The lab shared a genetic profile with the DNA Doe Project, a group of volunteer genealogists whose sleuthing has helped solve more than 100 cold cases since 2017.

Dr. Gwen Knapp, the project’s lead investigator, searched for the profile on GEDMatch, an online database that law enforcement can access and that combines and compares DNA tests from a variety of popular DNA testing companies, like Ancestry.com and 23andMe.

Dr. Knapp’s team parsed many distant matches before finding DNA for both sets of grandparents that helped them build a family tree. They compared genetic data with public records to establish that Mr. Kirk, a man with children who had been married and divorced twice and who had some family ties to Madison, was the likely source of the sequenced DNA. The work was complicated by the fact that Mr. Kirk had been adopted — though the team’s research suggested that his adoptive parents were relatives.

Detective Ludden’s interviews with the family, who requested privacy when the details of the case were revealed, confirmed the match.

And now, 35 years after Mr. Kirk’s skeletal remains were found, a search for how he ended up dead in a chimney can begin.

Detective Ludden has asked the Dane County Medical Examiner’s Office to perform a fresh autopsy on the remains, to try to determine when Mr. Kirk died. She has also enlisted the help of the nonprofit Trans Doe Task Force, which focuses on assisting law enforcement in researching cold cases involving L.G.B.T.Q. victims and victims of suspected gender-based violence.

The task force focuses on deaths that “didn’t get the respect or attention that they deserved or needed,” Anthony Redgrave, the group’s co-founder, said in an interview.

The initial autopsy had found that Mr. Kirk’s pelvis was broken. The injury, coupled with the feminine clothing, spurred police theories that he had been a male cross-dresser, possibly a prostitute who surprised a customer angry enough to murder him and stuff his body down a chimney.

“Based on everything we have at this point, he always identified as male, but I know that sometimes people hide aspects of their life from friends and family,” Detective Ludden said.

Years had passed between Mr. Kirk’s last contact with relatives and the discovery of his remains.

“There is plenty of circumstantial evidence of gender-based violence,” said Dr. Redgrave, “but plenty of question marks, too.”

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