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Solving the Somerton Man mystery, Australia's most baffling cold case

Forensic advances are poised to answer questions that have gripped Down Under for 70 years.

Ian Knighton/CNET

It's one of the oldest cold cases in Australia's history: an unknown man found dead, slumped by a seawall, at a popular beach on the first day of summer, 1948.

He has come to be known as the Somerton Man.

He was found with no ID, no wallet and all the name tags cut from his clothing. The coroner's report suggested poisoning, but no toxins were found in his system. Some suspect he may have been a Russian spy.

Seventy years later, we know little about the Somerton Man -- who he was, why his body came to be at that seaside town a few miles outside Adelaide or what the circumstances of his death were.

But that could be about to change.

Forensic science has come a long way since his mysterious death. Earlier this year, new forensic DNA techniques helped apprehend a man suspected to be California's Golden State Killer, who'd evaded police for 40 years. Cases that confounded police the world over are being solved using DNA evidence from crime scenes, bodies, clothes and weapons. Secrets once held by bones and blood and teeth are now writ large -- revealing killers, missing persons and complex family histories.

The key to the mystery of the Somerton Man rests within his genes.

For 12 years, amateur sleuth Derek Abbott, an engineering professor at the University of Adelaide, has toiled away at the case in his spare time, following a trail of clues that led him to believe his wife may be the Somerton Man's granddaughter.

Last year, a second team, composed of a writer and a doctor of forensic science, began their own investigation into the unknown man's identity. In June, they isolated genetic material from a plaster cast of the victim using a recently developed technique, known as direct PCR, to try to piece together who he was.

This is the story of one of the most baffling mysteries in Australian history and the two teams racing to solve it.

It begins with a body on a beach.

A portrait of the Somerton Man commissioned by Derek Abbott, reconstructing how he may have looked when he was alive.

Derek Abbott

'It is ended'

On the evening of Nov. 30, 1948, John Bain Lyons walked hand-in-hand with his wife along Somerton Beach in South Australia. He noticed a man lying on his back, his head propped up against a concrete seawall a few paces from a staircase leading up to the promenade.

The man raised his right arm, as if waving or perhaps reaching out for something. Lyons thought he was drunk and seeking a cigarette. Thinking little of it, he and his wife continued their evening trek north.

The next day, Lyons took a morning swim at the same beach and, after leaving the water, noticed the man lying in the same spot as the night before.

The exact same spot.

Something was wrong. A cigarette lay on the man's collar, half-smoked. His body was ice cold.

Lyons called the police.

Police constable John Moss responded to Lyons' phone call and made his way to the scene. Searching through the man's clothing, Moss found a bus ticket, an unused railway ticket to the nearby suburb of Henley Beach, a box of cigarettes, two combs and a pack of chewing gum. There was no ID or cash, and the name tags common on clothing at the time had all been cut out.

A doctor pronounced the man dead as of approximately 2 a.m., based on the level of rigor mortis, and sent the body on to the city mortuary for examination.

Because the man was carrying an unused train ticket, South Australian police investigated the cloakroom at the Adelaide railway station. They found a brown suitcase that had been deposited on Nov. 30. Railway staff had no memory of who'd left the luggage, but police knew it belonged to their mysterious victim because of a unique orange spool of thread -- the same kind used to repair the man's trousers.

The suitcase also contained items of clothing with names inscribed inside: "T. Keane" and "Kean." But the names led nowhere and the trail went cold.

Four months later, John Cleland, a pathologist at the University of Adelaide, re-examined the corpse and the man's possessions. In the fob watch pocket, he found a tightly rolled scrap of paper containing two words printed in elaborate script: Tamám Shud.

A Persian phrase. The translation: "It is ended."

Secrets of the Rubáiyát

The scrap of paper was almost certainly cut from the final page of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, a book of 12th-century Persian poetry famously translated in 1859 by English poet Edward FitzGerald.

A nationwide search began for the copy of the Rubáiyát from which the scrap of paper had been torn.

Eight months after the body was found, a man came forward with the book. He'd found it in his car, but said he had no idea how it got there. On the final page, there was a cutout where the words Tamám Shud had been.

It was definitely the copy of the Rubáiyát police were looking for. After examining the book, they realized it held even more secrets.

The code found in the back of the Rubáiyát 

Bill Krischock

The inside cover hid faint indentations that revealed an unlisted phone number. That led detectives to a woman named Jo Thomson, who lived fewer than 500 yards from where the body was found.

But also hidden, on the back, was a seemingly random assortment of letters arranged into five lines, the second of which was struck through with a pen.


A code.

A problem that fights back

Derek Abbott first encountered the code while his clothes spun in a laundromat dryer. As an engineering professor, Abbott had worked with codes and ciphers all his life. He became obsessed with it. He's spent years trying to solve it, even using it in his curriculum as a challenge for his honors students.

They've made great progress. "It's not a code but the first letters of English words," Abbott says.

His research has led him to chase clues across the globe and to crowdsource theories on Facebook groups and message boards. He was the first to discover that the Somerton Man's clothing was American in origin and the first to commission a portrait of what the Somerton Man may have looked like alive (a more useful image for identification than the photo taken of his face on the coroner's table). Abbott was also the first to note the dead man's higher-than-average strontium levels, which could help pinpoint where he was from.

None of that helped crack the case.

"You know you've found a good problem to work on when it fights back at you," he says.

Abbott turned his attention to Thomson, the woman whose phone number was hidden in the back of the Rubáiyát.

Abbott believes Thomson knew the Somerton Man.

Married to the mystery

Before burying the Somerton Man, authorities embalmed his body and made a plaster cast of his face. In 1948, a detective showed Thomson that cast. According to the technician who was present, she "averted her eyes" and gave the appearance "she was about to faint." But she denied knowing who the cast belonged to.

In 1947, Thomson had a son, named Robin.

Thomson died in 2007 and Robin died in 2009, before Abbott was able to question them. So he rifled through old newspapers and believed he'd discovered that Robin had a striking physical resemblance to the Somerton Man.


A portrait of Jo Thomson commissioned by Derek Abbott. 

Greg O'Leary/Derek Abbott

For Abbott, those clues led to a hunch: Thomson and the Somerton Man were Robin's parents. He set about finding Robin's relatives, eventually locating Robin's daughter, Rachel, in 2010. They hit it off and within three days, they'd agreed to marry.

In trying to solve the Somerton Man case, Abbott became part of it.

The only problem is that the body is six feet under and seven decades old. Despite repeated requests for an exhumation, the state's attorney general has been reluctant to dig up the corpse because it has not been considered "in the public interest." That roadblock has prevented forensic scientists from obtaining samples that could, once and for all, reveal the unknown man's identity.

But above ground, one piece of evidence still shelters pieces of the Somerton Man's genetic makeup: the plaster cast of his bust, made before his burial.

Using advances in trace DNA analysis, the plaster cast may present the best chance at providing a conclusion -- and that's where Abbott turned his attention.

He's "99 percent sure" that Rachel's DNA profile will match the one obtained from the cast.

The problem is he's not the only one chasing answers.

A hairy situation   

The Australian Centre for Ancient DNA (ACAD) is tucked inside a red brick building deep in the heart of Adelaide University's sprawling city campus. It's a portal to human history, a research hub that uses cutting-edge techniques to unravel the past.

At ACAD, researchers extract DNA from animals, people, plants and soil to piece together histories and lineages and explain ancient phenomena, such as extinction events and human migrations. Sometimes, it gets involved with criminal cases, such as that of Daniel Morcombe, a 13-year-old boy abducted and murdered in 2003. Scientists at ACAD played a critical role in identifying remains found in 2011 and linking them to the boy.

Four years ago, ACAD isolated several hairs from the Somerton Man's plaster cast, but its effort stopped there. "Other projects with a budget take priority," Abbott explains.

It's not as simple as just pulling any hair they can find. The team is looking for a particular type of hair in "anagen phase." During life, this type of hair is rich with DNA. Locating a hair that was in this phase at death gives the team the best chance at obtaining a DNA profile.

A DNA profile is like a book made up of billions of sentences featuring just four letters: A, T, C and G. If  The letters always occur in pairs: C connects with G, A connects with T. The arrangement of these letters define who you are, what you look like, what your eye color is and how your body functions. It's unique to you.

When cells divide, they need to make copies of themselves, and sometimes this results in errors. Think of them as typos -- where there was once a C, there is now a G. These are known as "single-nucleotide polymorphisms," or SNPs, and over time, as our cells divide, we accumulate more of them.

Hairs trapped in the plaster cast of the Somerton Man's bust

Derek Abbott

If viable DNA can be extracted from the Somerton Man, these errors will give us a better understanding of who he was. Police used this technique, along with an online database of DNA profiles, to crack the Golden State Killer case in April and locate the man they believe to be responsible for a spate of murders and rapes dating back to 1974.

So far, ACAD has shown there's viable DNA from the hairs caught in the plaster cast. But the team needs to sequence around 600,000 SNPs to have a decent chance at nailing down the man's identity -- and that process takes time.

Time they may not have.

Challengers approaching

South Australia has garnered a reputation as the "murder capital of the world." The spectre of ghastly killings such as the Snowtown Murders, where eight bodies were stuffed in barrels and hidden in an unused bank vault, looms over the state.

Mysteries like that compelled journalist Aimee Knight to report on the state's sordid history and to eventually seek out Renée Blackie, a forensic scientist from South Australia's Flinders University.

"I've always been in awe of her work," Knight says. "My skills as a writer and critic, plus Renée's extensive work with DNA, have given us a unique view on the case and its narrative."

Together, the pair visited the Somerton Man's plaster cast at the South Australian Police Museum. Inspecting it, Blackie floated the idea that it was theoretically possible to extract DNA from the bust and have it analyzed via a technique that she pioneered while researching her doctorate.

In early June, she swabbed the bust and plucked a single hair from the plaster, like Abbott's team did. The difference is in how that hair will be used to build a DNA profile.

Those samples were transferred to the state forensic laboratory (FSSA), which builds DNA profiles from samples collected from crime scenes. The team typically looks at a set of 23 to 24 locations on the DNA, says Damien Abarno, DNA database program manager at FSSA.

"What we're measuring in those locations is the number of repeats you have in your DNA," he says. These sections of DNA are known as short tandem repeats (STRs).

Measuring STRs enables the laboratory to build a unique DNA profile of an individual from a sample -- such as a hair. The profile built is then matched to one in the database to identify an individual.


Derek Abbott

Derek Abbott

In theory, the process could be used to identify the Somerton Man. He won't have a DNA profile in the NCIDD, Australia's National Criminal Investigation DNA Database, but his profile might just match those of relatives in the database, providing new leads.

There are drawbacks, though. Abarno concedes the analysis at FSSA isn't as comprehensive as the method favored by ACAD, which can look at "a lot more places on the DNA." Looking at more places allows Abbott and ACAD to "interrogate the relationships" further than FSSA, and potentially match more-distant relatives.

"It is doubtful [FSSA] will get a DNA result in the first place, as their techniques are unproven on 70-year-old degraded DNA," he says.

Dennis McNevin, professor of forensic genetics at University of Technology Sydney, agrees there are difficulties building a DNA profile using STRs, specifically in cases where the DNA has degraded.

"It's not an issue for most forensic processes. Even if I touch my desk, there's enough DNA there to generate an STR profile. The problem is when you have compromised or degraded remains," says McNevin.

Even if FSSA does get viable DNA from the plaster cast swabs and bust, Abbott doesn't believe they're approaching the case in the right way. He suggests any STR profile would be unable to identify the Somerton Man, calling his approach a "slam dunk."

The body on the beach

Abbott's dogged pursuit of identifying the Somerton Man is suddenly under threat. Blackie and Knight have only just begun investigating the case. He's been working on it for 12 years.

Abbott admits having it solved by others would disappoint him.

"In any form of scientific research, publication priority is an important thing,"  he says. "If another group publishes a result before you it is indeed a blow. And the longer you've been working on it, the bigger the disappointment."

The chief goal of the analysis, for Blackie, is to prove that a technique she helped develop can assist in solving cold cases, in which degraded DNA samples are used. She speaks confidently to its applications in the future, how she can develop it further and how other agencies and forensic labs may be able to use it in identification cases.

"Degraded samples are always going to be challenging no matter what technique is applied," Blackie explains. "Trace and degraded samples can provide similar challenges, so I hope that direct PCR is a method that can assist further in degraded samples."

Knight says the experience of exploring the case and its mythology will form the backbone of her debut book.

For the two of them, it's not a competition at all. There is no arms race.

They make it clear: The data they obtain from their investigation is "complementary, not competitive" because the two techniques target different sites on the DNA to build unique profiles. Thus, they can both provide clues -- or even answers -- to the Somerton Man's identity.

DNA can't lie.

As forensic techniques continue to improve, we march ever closer to revealing the stories of nameless souls like the Somerton Man or uncovering the identities of people responsible for gruesome crime sprees.

"We are at the edge of what is possible," Abbott says.

At the southern end of Adelaide's West Terrace, across the road from two major car dealerships and a 140-year-old stonemason lies the West Terrace Cemetery. As one of the state's oldest cemeteries, it has stories to tell.

The Somerton Man was buried there in the depths of winter, in 1949.

A simple cross was placed on the grave that read "Unknown Man." Eventually, it was replaced by a modest headstone:

Here lies the unknown man who was found at Somerton Beach, Dec 1, 1948

Abbott estimates that identification could still be a year away. For Blackie and Knight, the timeline is far shorter. If the state forensic laboratory can find DNA, they should have a result within weeks. That will bring them another step closer to solving a mystery that's haunted Australia for 70 years.

In time, the Somerton Man's headstone will be replaced. He'll finally have a name. The Somerton Man will be no more.

Only a story will remain. It begins with a body on the beach.

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Update 10:15 p.m.: Added Derek Abbott's first encounter with the code.