Drowning victim remains unknown
Troy Kay | Special to The Enterprise
Strickland's Bridge on Old Bailey Highway in rural southern Nash County, shown here last week, marks the spot where a drowned man was fished out of the Tar River in 1980. The drowning victim's identity remains unknown.
Unidentified is a weekly series examining the more than 120 cases of unidentified human remains discovered in North Carolina. Reporter Lindell J. Kay produces each installment for The Enterprise of Spring Hope and other Restoration NewsMedia newspapers. Next week’s installment will report the details of an unknown young man who stepped in front of a train in downtown Dunn 17 years ago this month.
Click the hyperlinked text below to read previous installments.
SPRING HOPE — A still-unknown drowned man fished out of the Tar River four decades ago likely had a cocktail of whiskey or wine, fingernail polish remover and rubbing alcohol swirling around in his system.
On June 25, 1980, a fisherman found the drowned man’s body in the water near Strickland’s Bridge on Old Bailey Highway about 9 miles from downtown Spring Hope in rural Nash County.
The 50- to 70-year-old Black man died of drowning and his body could have floated downstream for several miles, according to an autopsy and death investigation conducted by Nash County Medical Examiner Robert E. Zipf Jr.
The Tar River starts in Person County and runs through Louisburg upstream from the location where the drowned man was discovered.
Washed ashore, unearthed in shallow graves, stumbled upon in the woods, discovered in abandoned houses, killed on busy roads or located in rivers, ponds and along railroad tracks, more than 120 bodies remain unidentified in North Carolina. This is one of their stories.
Officials believe the drowned man had been dead for around three days prior to discovery. The remains weren’t recognizable due to decomposition and putrefaction.
The drowned man had a blood ethanol level above 80 milligrams per deciliter and traces of acetone and isopropanol in his system, according to his toxicology report. That level of ethanol exceeds North Carolina’s legal limit for driving a motor vehicle. Levels that high are frequently associated with loss of manual dexterity and sedation, according to information from the Mayo Clinic Laboratories.
Acetone is a solvent found in fingernail polish remover. Isopropanol is a major component of rubbing alcohol. Both chemicals are deadly if consumed.
“Odds are high that the individual won’t only get drunk on this dangerously toxic beverage, they’ll black out and possibly even die,” according to information about rubbing alcohol provided by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation.
Zipf, who retired in 2010, still lives in the area. He said last week that he didn’t remember the case, as he examined hundreds of bodies a year.
“If they were unidentified we took pictures, fingerprints and took X-rays,” Zipf said. “We examined their teeth and we would check with dentists for records. We would also look for tattoos and scars. Anything that would help identify the person. Law enforcement would also be looking. It was a two-prong approach.”
The drowned man stood 6 feet, 1 inch tall and weighed 190 pounds. He had short, curly, black hair with some graying, a beard and mustache. His eye color is unknown.
He had a 4-centimeter long scar on his lower right abdomen and a healed wired fracture in the left side of his jaw. Zipf noted he believed the healed jaw injury likely meant the man had been in a serious vehicle wreck at some point, according to archived newspaper reports.
The drowned man had his appendix removed at some point. Dental records are available showing a left lower cuspid with a restoration. Partial fingerprints are available.
A DNA profile isn’t available because no samples were retained, according to information from the Doe Network, a volunteer-run international clearinghouse for unidentified and missing persons.
The drowned man’s clothing included dark and light blue striped wool and cotton pants.
The victim’s National Missing and Unidentified Persons System number is 2182. Anyone with information about the drowned man’s identity is asked to call the N.C. Office of the Chief Medical Examiner at 919-733-7834 or Team Cold Case at 252-406-6736. A monetary reward is available.
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