DNA from Rutherford County leads to identification of body found in Florida 40 years ago

Relatives of missing man James Sanders waited 43 years before learning last week their brother’s remains were found in 1981 in Immokalee, Fla., based on DNA samples submitted by Rutherford County Sheriff’s detectives.

Sanders, 32, of Portland, Tenn., was last seen Jan. 1, 1978 at a bus stop in Tennessee en route to North Carolina where he planned to work at an aunt’s tobacco farm. Sanders never arrived at his aunt’s farm and was never heard from again.

Brother Eddie Sanders contacted Rutherford County Sheriff’s Detective Sgt. Dan Goodwin and Steve Kohler in 2014, who were trying to find the identity of a man whose burned body was found Aug. 1, 1978 at Poole Knobs Recreation area in La Vergne.

Sanders wondered if the man found in La Vergne might be his brother. He, his sister and his brothers’ children gave DNA samples to the detectives who submitted the samples in January 2015 to the North Texas University DNA lab for testing.

Lab employees notified the detectives six months later the man found in La Vergne was not Sanders. Those samples remained at the lab.

Sheriff Kevin Rambosk of Collier County, Florida, announced Friday the lab matched bone from the body found in Immokalee to Sanders’ DNA submitted by Rutherford County detectives.

“This important development was made possible thanks to DNA technology and the dedication of everyone involved in this investigation,” said Rambosk.

“Without the combined efforts of multiple agencies, Mr. Sanders would still be unidentified after 40 years,” Rambosk said. “Now that our victim has a name, the homicide investigation can continue to be actively worked.”

The case for the identity of the missing man found in La Vergne is being investigated by Detective Richard Brinkley of the Rutherford County Sheriff’s Office.

Brinkley is still trying to identify the suspects who killed the unidentified man while focusing on the identity of the victim.

An autopsy report described the unidentified man as being in his late 30s who was 5-feet-10 tall. He had long, brown hair with a receding hairline and a reddish brown and gray beard. He had a scar on his stomach, no teeth but an upper denture and a quarter-sized mole near his waistline.

Detectives worked with Dr. Lee Meadows Jantz from the state Forensic Anthropology Center who said the man’s DNA was submitted to the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System to search for a match. No results have been found.

A profile of the unidentified man was added to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System.

People may view the man’s profile at https://www.namus.gov/UnidentifiedPersons/Case#/1585?nav

The sheriff’s office is now partnering with Othram, a private DNA lab who recovers human DNA to solve murder cases with hopes for an identification. The team is actively working on matches.

“We’re pursuing the same thing that solved the Florida case, DNA evidence,” Brinkley said.

People who may have information on the man may contact Brinkley at rbrinkley@rcsotn.org or at 615-904-3045.

James Sanders

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