Belt buckle prompts Florida sheriff to reopen cold case

Author: The Associated Press
William Ernest Thompson (Credit: ECSO/Facebook)

For 35 years, he was known as “John Doe.” But the hand-engraved initials on his belt buckle held a clue, even if his death and the man’s identity stumped authorities in Escambia County for all these many years.

Those initials — WT — and DNA analysis this month would help confirm the man’s identity: William Ernest Thompson.

Now the investigation into his death has been reopened.

“This is another example of the never-ending quest for justice. While we haven’t yet solved the homicide. It is a step forward and can give the family some closure until the case is solved,” said Chief Deputy Chip Simmons, in a statement posted Thursday on Facebook by his department.

Thompson would have been 49 when his body was discovered on Jan. 23, 1985, near Klondike Road and Wilde Lake Boulevard, about 10 miles northwest of downtown Pensacola. Authorities did not find an ID. He might have been dead for months, possibly more than a year, before his remains were found.

He was last in touch with family in September 1983, when he spoke to his mother by phone, sheriff’s officials said. But no one had reported him missing.

There was little to go on but the initials inscribed on his belt.

“Years passed, but no tips on the case,” the Sheriff’s Department said in its social media post.

The case went cold — until someone looking into a missing uncle came upon the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office website two years ago. A cold case entry on the website described what little was known about the “John Doe” who was found on that January day so many years ago.

“The person felt this could have been their missing uncle, whose last known location was in Escambia County near the same time John Doe’s body was discovered,” officials said.

Investigators finally had something promising to go on. They enlisted the help of the Medical Examiner’s Office, which took a sample of the tipster’s DNA and compared it with a sample from “John Doe.”

Authorities said the results were conclusive: The man was indeed Thompson, who was born April 15, 1935.

With a key question resolved, authorities now hope to answer more: Why did he die, and who might have killed him?

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