YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) — It was so long ago when the dead man was pulled from the Mahoning River on a rainy June Sunday in 1980 that it was a different city — and world.
But it was a relic of that different time that allowed police to identify him almost 43 years after he was found.
Police announced at a press conference Wednesday that they managed to identify Ralph Coffman, 55, as the man pulled from the Mahoning River on June 29, 1980.
Coffman, who had an address of 22 S. West Ave. in the city, had family in Ohio and the Carolinas, but it took a more than two-year effort to figure out his name.
And to do that, police did not rely on complex DNA samples or computer programs.
Instead, police had to rely on fingerprint cards, taken when Coffman was booked two separate times in July 1972 and July 1973 by city police. Those were in a box that was stored with hundreds of boxes.
Chief of Detectives Capt. Jason Simon credited Detective Sgt. Dave Sweeney, who heads up the department’s cold case and missing person cases; Officer Sonya Green, who has worked for years in the Records Room; and former officer George Ross, who retired in 2009 after a more than 30-year career, including a 15-year stint in the Records Room, where evidence, including fingerprint evidence, was stored.
Sweeney, who has now been able to identify five people who have been missing for at least 20 years, said the case is one of the toughest he has ever had.
“Needle in a haystack doesn’t even touch it,” Sweeney said. “We got lucky.”
Sweeney also thanked the state Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation for its help as well as the Porchlight Project, a group that specializes in missing person cases, for help in tracking down Coffman’s family, as well as the Mahoning County Coroner’s Office.
When Coffman was pulled from the river on that rainy Sunday as about a dozen people watched. The city was a little less than three years removed from Black Monday, the September 1977 day that the first round of massive layoffs in the steel industry changed things forever in Youngstown.
The city’s population was still over 100,000 — 115,423, to be exact — and most of the mills were still up, if not running. Where Coffman was found, just east of the Market Street bridge, was where Republic Steel’s plant used to be. That land was cleared to make way for the Covelli Centre.
But one thing that didn’t exist then was the idea of DNA technology being used to identify someone. When Coffman was found, an assistant coroner with the Mahoning County Coroner’s Office ruled the cause of death as “asphyxiation by drowning.” His clothes were not kept and he was cremated two days after he was found, his body displayed in a local funeral home before cremation. The cremains were disposed of in Lake Park Cemetery.
The only thing left years later for investigators was a set of fingerprints taken when Coffman was found — that was of poor quality because Coffman had been in the water for a long time — and an estimate that the man — now known as John Doe, Mahoning River — was between 50 and 55 years old, 5’8, and 150 pounds.
And the prints they had were not even the original — they had a copy of the fingerprint card, but not the actual card itself. Because the prints were of such poor quality, they could not be entered into the national computer database of fingerprints. And only six prints could be used because the others were too poor.
“This was the only lead we had in the case,” said Simon.
Chief of Detectives Capt. Jason Simon said when the case was reopened in February 2021, those fingerprints presented a challenge, so investigators first talked to Green, who was trained in the art of fingerprint science, specifically the Henry classification of fingerprinting, which is based on the whorls in a fingerprint.
“It’s like Latin,” said Simon. “It’s a language no one speaks anymore.”
Green examined the prints taken when Coffman was found and was able to come up with a specific classification setting under the Henry system. She gave Simon a set of numbers — which he said he has no idea what they mean — but they were able to use those numbers to narrow their search for the classification of prints they could search.
And that was important because the department has hundreds of boxes and thousands of fingerprint cards, all stored in the basement of the municipal court building on Front Street.
From there, Ross was consulted. He was the last person who fingerprinted people for the department using the Henry system (because the department no longer has a jail, they do not fingerprint people anymore. That is all done at the Mahoning County Jail).
“He took a lot of expertise with him when he left,” Green said of Ross.
Green managed to narrow the search of boxes to nine. Ross suggested the search be narrowed further for white men who would have been between the ages of 45 and 60 in 1980 and whose prints were in the classification Green found.
“We still had a large task ahead of us,” Simon said.
That cut the number of boxes to be searched from nine to three.
From there, the search was then narrowed to one box.
And then one fingerprint card: Coffman’s card.
One of the things that helped investigators pick Coffman’s card is that they could find no missing person report or death certificate for him.
He had been booked by city police at 1:20 a.m. on July 10, 1973, when he was 48, and again on July 12, 1972. Both times the charge was listed as “drunk.”
Officers had written on the card that Coffman told them that he had been arrested on the same charges before in Arizona and California. He had been living in Youngstown for three months, coming from his birthplace of Fernwood in Jefferson County, according to the information on his fingerprint cards.
After they compared Coffman’s card to what they had on file, investigators made a digital image of the prints taken when Coffman was found and the fingerprint card, then sent it to BCI to be compared. Within two weeks, BCI confirmed that the prints were a match.
Next, the Porchlight Project was contacted, to help investigators find Coffman’s family. Simon said the family chose not to attend the press conference and have asked for privacy.
This story is part of a series of cold cases that WKBN is examining.
Sweeney said Coffman’s identity could not have been discovered without the help of multiple people and agencies.
“It’s definitely a partnership and that’s how these cases get solved; partnerships,” Sweeney said.