Belt buckle leads to ID of ‘John Doe’ murder victim 35 years after discovery of remains

Belt buckle leads to ID of ‘John Doe’ murder victim 35 years after discovery of remains

PENSACOLA, Fla. — The man’s skeletal remains were mostly nondescript when a work crew found them in an area of northwest Pensacola in the winter of 1985.

The middle-aged man was tall, at least 6 feet, and had suffered from arthritis and poor dental health. He had a gap between his two front teeth.

According to the Doe Network, a volunteer organization devoted to helping law enforcement identify human remains, the man had been shot to death.

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The clothes found with his remains on Jan. 23, 1985, were nondescript Sears items, except for the Hush Puppies that had been on his feet.

The most unique feature of his wardrobe appeared to be a belt with hand-engraved initials, the letters W.T., on the buckle.

Pictured are the shoes, pants and hand-engraved belt buckle found with a man's skeletal remains in January 1985 in Pensacola, Fla. Escambia County authorities announced Oct. 15, 2020, that the man had been identified as William Ernest Thompson, who was 48 when he vanished in September 1983.
Pictured are the shoes, pants and hand-engraved belt buckle found with a man's skeletal remains in January 1985 in Pensacola, Fla. Escambia County authorities announced Oct. 15, 2020, that the man had been identified as William Ernest Thompson, who was 48 when he vanished in September 1983. (The Doe Network)

Now, 35 years after Escambia County authorities listed the man as a John Doe, that belt buckle has led sheriff’s office investigators to identify the man as William Ernest Thompson.

Thompson was 48 years old the last time his family heard from him.

“In 2018, a person who was searching for their missing family member read the story on the (Escambia County Sheriff’s Office) website and contacted our cold case investigators,” a statement from the department said. "The thing that stuck out to the person the most was the victim’s belt buckle with the hand-engraved initials W.T.

“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.”

A DNA comparison with the profile of the unidentified man confirmed the family member’s hunch.

A facial reconstruction and an artist's rendering show what a man found shot to death in January 1985 in Pensacola, Fla., might have looked like. Escambia County authorities announced Oct. 15, 2020, that the man had been identified as William Ernest Thompson, who was 48 when he vanished in September 1983.
A facial reconstruction and an artist's rendering show what a man found shot to death in January 1985 in Pensacola, Fla., might have looked like. Escambia County authorities announced Oct. 15, 2020, that the man had been identified as William Ernest Thompson, who was 48 when he vanished in September 1983. (The Doe Network)

“The last time William Thompson made contact with his family was on Sept. 23, 1983,” sheriff’s office officials said. “He called his mother from an unknown location on Pensacola Beach.”

Despite the lack of contact after that day, Thompson’s family never filed a missing person report.

His death is being investigated as a homicide, authorities said.

“This is another example of the never-ending quest for justice,” Escambia County Chief Deputy Chip Simmons said. “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.”

Anyone with information about Thompson’s homicide is asked to call Gulf Coast Crime Stoppers at 850-433-STOP, or call toll free at 877-433-TIPS. The Escambia County Sheriff’s Office can be reached at 850-436-9620.