CLEVELAND — When a man named Joseph Newton Chandler III put a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger in his apartment outside of Cleveland in 2002, he left behind $82,000 in a bank account and an enduring mystery about his actual identity that's been finally solved with the help of forensics, genealogy and old-fashioned sleuthing
Peter Elliot, U.S. Marshal for Northern Ohio, announced in Cleveland on Thursday that Joseph Chandler's true identity was Indiana-born Robert Ivan Nichols, who abandoned his family in the mid-1960s and in 1978 obtained a Social Security number using the name of an 8-year-old boy who died in a car accident in Texas with his parents in 1945.
Even with the mystery of the identity being solved, the public's help still is needed, Elliott said.
"Robert Ivan Nichols never wanted to be found throughout his lifetime, even into his death," Elliott said. "Someone out there might hold the key as to why."
There are no records of Nichols having broken any laws using either name, Elliott said. But based on his behavior, Nichols was hiding something, given the lengths he took to assume a new identity and lose himself in the world, Elliott believes.
Police in Eastlake, Ohio, discovered who the real Joseph Chandler was when they tried to locate relatives to give his savings to. There wasn't much in the way of evidence. His body was too decomposed when it was found to obtain fingerprints, and he was cremated.
People who worked with Chandler during his years in the Cleveland area described him as a loner who was quiet, intelligent and eccentric. Elliott said Nichols would disappear for extended periods of time, telling co-workers "they are getting close" without providing details. A packed suitcase was found in his apartment.
The mystery surrounding his identity led to all kinds of speculation about who he was. It was suggested he might be airline hijacker D.B. Cooper or the "Zodiac Killer" who terrorized San Francisco and northern California during the 1960s and early 1970s. Elliott said Nichols lived in northern California for some of that time, but it's up to California authorities to decide whether to investigate Nichols as a Zodiac suspect.
The U.S. Marshals Service adopted the case in 2014 at the request of Eastlake police. The probe got an early break when investigators discovered that a tissue sample was taken from Chandler when he underwent a medical procedure in 2000. The Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner's Office created a DNA profile, but no identifying matches were found in any databases.
The Marshals Service eventually turned a forensic genealogist in California, Colleen Fitzpatrick, of Identifiers International, who determined Chandler's real last name could be a variation of Nicholas. Fitzpatrick then teamed up with Margaret Press, a DNA genealogist, to create the DNA Doe Project and continue the work of identifying the mystery man.
More DNA testing followed with the creation of family trees using genealogy databases that led to common ancestors and a person who could be the mystery man's son, Phil Nichols of Cincinnati. His DNA matched that of his father.
Phil Nichols, who attended Elliot's Thursday announcement, said his last contact with his father was in 1965, when the elder Nichols mailed him an envelope that contained a single penny but no letter or return address.
Robert Nichols was born in 1926 and grew up in New Albany, Indiana. He served in the U.S. Navy during World War II and received the Purple Heart after his ship was bombed by the Japanese in the Pacific. Family members said he burned his uniform after he returned home from the war.
He married in 1947, had three sons and filed for divorce in 1964.
"He left our family in a lurch," Phil Nichols said.
Robert Nichols was reported missing by his parents and family in 1965 and was never heard from again.
Phil Nichols said he was surprised when Elliott and a deputy marshal appeared at his door earlier this year.
"I'm at peace, and hold no animosity, no anger," he said. "I wish it had turned out differently."