“Paratrooper” John Doe remains unidentified 40 years after body found floating in water

“Paratrooper” John Doe remains unidentified 40 years after body found floating in water

“I look at the old newspaper articles, look at what’s the information available online and kind of try to run with that,” Amelia Pearn told Dateline. “Sometimes it’s very helpful. Sometimes not so much.”  

Pearn, a New Jersey native, created Veteran Doe in 2015. It’s an organization that, according to her website, focuses on bringing attention to the “many missing veteran/active duty cases and unidentified person cases where there is a possible military connection.” And while Pearn didn’t serve in the military herself, she does have a strong personal connection to those who have. “My uncles, my father, my cousins, my son,” she listed. “So, you know, very heavy military.”

Pearn told Dateline the idea for Veteran Doe came about in 2014. She had been looking at the case of a woman from Pennsylvania, when she ran across another thread about an unidentified body in a New York City cold case. “I found a case where the deceased had a very large Marine Corps tattoo, and I thought, ‘Oh, that’s—that’s too easy to be identified.’” The John Doe with the Marine Corps tattoo was found dead in Harlem in June of 1997. 

“I came back to it like six months later, still looking at that female’s case, and he was still there,” still unidentified, Pearn said. She believed there had to be a way to identify him — especially with such a specific tattoo. “There must be ways to do that with the— with the [military] branches,” she thought. “He really kind of started it and then I had to look specifically for military tattoos and things like that.” 

Pearn quickly realized there needed to be some organization to her research. “I was like, ‘All right, I need a place to group this together,’” she remembered. “So that was how the website was set up.”

Pearn said she often uses NamUs as a tool. “Every so often I’ll go through, and I’ll see what kind of new cases are out there that may or may not fit as far as military cases and then try to use social media to highlight those cases and bring attention to them,” she said. 

She uses the Veteran Doe social media accounts to post about the cases she’s working on. “I actually got enough social media attention that I had a—his story went viral,” she said, referring to the Harlem John Doe with the Marine Corps tattoo. “Somebody out in, I think it was Washington or Oregon, she had worked with him, and she had reached out.” 

It took about 20 years from the time his body was found, but by the beginning of 2018 the John Doe with the Marine Corps tattoo was identified. “His name is Leroy Bernard Matthews,” Pearn told Dateline. Matthews’s death was believed to be an accidental electrocution on train tracks.

In April of 2018, Pearn came across the case of another John Doe case with a military-related tattoo — this time in Florida. His body was found in Ft. Lauderdale on May 26, 1984 — Memorial Day weekend. He is listed on NamUs as just a number: Unidentified Person / NamUs #UP1254. According to NamUs, he was “found floating in the Intercoastal [sic] Waterway” and all parts of his body were recovered. The estimated “post-mortem interval” — the amount of time that has elapsed since a death — was only one day. The John Doe had light brown hair, brown eyes, and no facial hair. He was wearing a tan bathing suit. 

Dateline reached out to the Ft. Lauderdale Police Department Media Relations Unit for more information on the John Doe case. A public information specialist responded that they did not have anyone “who is familiar enough with the case to provide an interview,” but they were able to answer a few questions about the case by email. 

Water where the
Water where the “Paratrooper” John Doe was located.Micaela Von Essen

The John Doe was found by a boat captain in the “intracoastal waterway (500 block of Bayshore Drive) on May 26, 1984 at approximately 7:30 a.m.,” the FLPD wrote. He was believed to be about 20 years old, 5’9” tall, and 160 lbs. with brown hair and brown eyes. The Broward Medical Examiner’s Office determined the cause of death to be a drowning and noted there were “no signs of foul play.” The FLPD worked with the Broward Sheriff’s Office to put together drawings of the victim, which were shared with the media in June of 1984. Authorities also sent the victim’s fingerprints to local and federal partners but have been unable to identify him. 

Police said the John Doe had two tattoos on his arms. Amelia Pearn said tattoos are often helpful in the identification process. “I was looking at tattoos, which are just, you know, good indicators of where somebody’s been or what they’ve been doing,” Pearn said.  

“He has two tattoos that they’ve released public information on, and one is a Pegasus-looking tattoo that says ‘Born to fly free,’” Pearn described. “And the other one is a skull with a red beret that says, ‘U.S. Paratrooper’ on it.” From the moment she saw the drawings of the John Doe’s tattoos on NamUs, Pearn began to refer to the unidentified man as “Paratrooper” John Doe

The “Paratrooper” John Doe’s tattoos.Ft. Lauderdale Police Department

Pearn has been working to understand more about the details in the Pegasus tattoo. “There was a program in Alaska that’s called Spartan Pegasus,” Pearn told Dateline. She thinks that could be a connection for identifying “Paratrooper” John Doe. 

Spartan Pegasus is an airborne operation in coordination with several military branches. According to the U.S. Army website, “The purpose of Spartan Pegasus was to validate Soldier mobility across frozen terrain, a key fundamental of U.S. Army Alaska’s capacity as the Army’s northernmost command.” The exercise was to showcase the capabilities of paratroopers in extreme, arctic conditions. 

Pearn believes that the “jagged snow-covered mountains” depicted on the tattoo might make sense with Alaska’s terrain in mind. “I’ve spent a decent amount of time with people trying to, you know, online threads, just trying to fit, ‘What is that?’” 

Not only did the tattoos lead Pearn to believe the “Paratrooper” John Doe had been in the military, but based on the time and circumstances, she believes it’s likely that he would have been enlisted at some point. “He’s a young guy, he’s that kind of age, he’s in good shape,” she said. “It seems like he’s probably there maybe, you know, doing something just for the weekend. He’s on leave, or he’s just recently been separated from the service, or something like that.” 

An artist sketch of
An artist sketch of “Paratrooper” John Doe.Ft. Lauderdale Police Department

Despite the lack of information in the “Paratrooper” John Doe case, Pearn is dedicated to finding his identity. She hopes that this 40th anniversary of his death will generate renewed interest in solving his mystery and give him back his name. “There are so many people that will, you know, latch on to something for some reason. Maybe it’s in their area or just something they’re compelled to look into and they do,” Pearn said. “It’s really a community effort.”

The Ft. Lauderdale Police Department said the John Doe’s case is “inactive pending leads on his identity.” 

If you have any information about the identity of “Paratrooper” John Doe, please call the Ft. Lauderdale Police Department’s Homicide Tipline at 954-828-6677.

If you have a story to share with Dateline, please submit it here.

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