The Cold Case Unit at the Coconino County Sheriff’s Office has solved a 22-year-old missing person case from Flagstaff by finally identifying a pedestrian killed by a car in Navajo County in 1994.
According to the Sheriff’s Office, Brian Nez, a 19-year-old Native American man from Flagstaff, was last seen by his family July 11, 1994. After about three months without hearing from the young man, his parents report him missing to the Sheriff’s Office on Oct. 25, 1994.
Meanwhile, the Arizona Department of Public Safety was trying, unsuccessfully, to identify a pedestrian who had been struck and killed by a vehicle in Navajo County in August 1994. The collision happened about 2 miles north of Winslow.
“They took pictures and walked Winslow and put out some information attempting to identify him in Navajo County. That’s what we did in those years,” said Coconino County cold case volunteer Jana White. “They had no luck.”
The deceased, a Native American male, became a John Doe.
Nez was reported missing two months later. The initial Sheriff’s Office investigation revealed he may have been seen at a party in Winslow in August or September 1994, but investigators were unable to generate any leads about his whereabouts after that despite interviewing multiple people.
No one made the connection between the two cases.
“By the time we took the missing person report in October, we put flyers out but we did it in Coconino County because of the way that the information-gathering processes were,” White said. “Basically, we just didn’t have the kind of integration we have today to match those things up.”
The Sheriff’s Office investigators entered Nez into the national computer database used by law enforcement and his case went cold for decades.
“We didn’t have the kind of databases that we have today in those years,” White said. “We didn’t have something where we had integrated information and you could take one piece of information and match it up to another piece of information. We were still handwriting a lot of things or typing them on a typewriter in those years.”
White, who retired after working for the Flagstaff and Northern Arizona University police departments, joined the Coconino County Sheriff’s Cold Case Unit in 2015 to review unsolved missing person cases. She reopened Nez’s case this past March.
White entered Nez into an online database called the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System. It was developed largely over the past 10 years to improve information sharing on missing and unidentified persons between law enforcement agencies nationwide.
The database showed that the description of the unidentified pedestrian killed in Navajo County in August 1994 was similar to Coconino County’s description of Nez. The Cold Case Unit also learned the Coconino County Medical Examiner’s Office had performed the autopsy on the unidentified man on behalf of Navajo County.
When the Cold Case volunteers and DPS investigators met to share information this year, they realized they might be working on the same case. They just needed to confirm John Doe’s identity.
Nez had been fingerprinted at age 7 as part of a nationwide Operation Child ID program. His mother had given the fingerprint card to the Sheriff’s detective who worked the original case when her son went missing.
The DPS Public Safety Crime Lab compared Nez’s fingerprint card to the prints from the accident victim.
They were a match.
“While this is a sad outcome for the family to know that their loved one is deceased, they are able to bring their loved one to rest,” said Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Jim Driscoll.
Driscoll went on to talk about the mission of the Cold Case Unit.
“The new technologies that have developed over time in terms of fingerprint analyses and data sharing have given us tools to re-analyze these cold cases,” he said. “And we are dedicated to continuing to solve as many as we can.”
DPS will continue to investigate the traffic crash that killed Nez.