A skull found almost four decades ago on the banks of the Delaware River was recently identified as the remains of a man who has been missing for about as much time, authorities said this week. Advanced forensic testing shed new light on the cold case when a genealogy database matched the man’s remains to his daughter, who is now 49 and living in Florida.
The man, Richard Thomas Alt of New Jersey, was 31 when he disappeared, according to the Bucks County District Attorney’s Office. Alt was last seen on Dec. 24, 1984 by his parents, and was reported missing to the Trenton Police Department early the next year.
Bucks County District Attorney Matt Weintraub, whose jurisdiction includes Morrisville, Pennsylvania, where the skull was discovered in 1986, announced on Monday that forensic testing has now confirmed the remains belong to Alt.
“I can’t even imagine wondering and worrying about a lost family member for even a day, let alone for 37 years. That wait is now over for Mr. Alt’s family,” Weintraub said in a statement. “I’m just glad that we could give them some peace of mind with this identification, and the eventual return of his remains to his family.”
At the time of Alt’s disappearance, he and his girlfriend, Laurie Suydam, were both suspected homicide victims in New Jersey, the Bucks County District Attorney’s Office said in a news release. Suydam’s body was found in the Delaware River in April 1985 — on the New Jersey side, in Trenton — but neither her nor Alt’s case was ever solved. The district attorney’s office said that Bucks County authorities consider their investigation into Alt’s death and disappearance “closed due to lack of evidence of any crime being committed in Bucks County.”
Police originally launched an investigation in June 1986, after the human skull now determined to belong to Alt was found by a fisherman on the banks of the Delaware River near the Morrisville boat ramp, the office said, adding that the fisherman brought the skull to township police in the section of Bucks County where he lived. The remains would not fall into the possession of county detectives until October 2019, while they were conducting what the district attorney’s office called “a probe of a homicide investigation.”
The skull was turned over to the Bucks County Coroner’s Office, which logged the remains in a national database for missing or otherwise unidentified people, and later retrieved again by county detectives who submitted it to a Texas laboratory for forensic genealogy testing. Earlier this year, the laboratory matched a DNA sample taken from the skull with a profile in a public genealogy database, where individual users can upload personal information themselves.
The profile belonged to a 49-year-old woman in Florida, whose name was not released by the district attorney’s office but who told Bucks County detectives that she was 11 years old when Alt, her father, went missing in Trenton in 1985. She said that Alt had not been seen since his girlfriend was murdered the same year.
A subsequent test comparing the woman’s full DNA results with Alt’s confirmed a parent-child relationship between their individual samples, according to the district attorney, who said in a statement that he hopes “this powerful combination of technology and genealogy becomes the template for solving cold and current cases now and in the future.”