Who Was ID Thief Joseph Chandler? A Fugitive? A Spy? A Nazi? The Zodiac Killer?
EASTLAKE, OH – July 23, 2002, a man known as Joseph Newton Chandler III committed suicide with a single handgun blast to the head inside his bathroom.
In fact, though, Joseph Chandler Newton III had already died in a car crash at age eight back in 1945. The man with the bullet in his brain had stolen the dead boy’s identity and, to date, no one is sure who he really was.
The mystery began about a week after “Chandler” pulled the trigger, when authorities found his body but could not locate any next of kin or even anyone who particularly knew the dead man. Neighbors actually used the word “hermit” to describe him.
He left no note and had no will. His apartment contained a computer, some finance books, and a bunch of electronic gadgets upon which he appeared to tinker.
Using the ID cards in his wallet, detectives pieced together that the ersatz Chandler had been diagnosed with colon cancer earlier in the year and that he’d purchased the .38-caliber Charter Arms revolver he used to kill himself shortly thereafter.
In addition, Chandler worked as an electrical engineer at the Lubrizol Corporation. Coworkers described him as a “loner” who didn’t talk to them about anything specific.
The colleagues did, however, report some eccentric behavior, such as Chandler listening to TV static all day and once attending a Halloween party dressed as Al Capone but speaking to absolutely no one.
The dead man also had $82,000 in his bank account, which prompted a probate attorney to track down his relatives. A genealogist then connected the man’s info to Ellen Kaaber, his supposed cousin.
However, Kaaber revealed that the Joseph Chandler Newton III to whom she was related was eight-years-old when he perished alongside his parents during a traffic accident in Texas.
The dead child’s information, of course, matched the paperwork of whoever had occupied that body in Ohio.
Investigators determined that the Ohio man had applied for a copy of the boy’s birth certificate in 1978. He then used it to acquire a Social Security number and ID card, which enabled him to live as Joe Chandler until he ate that self-inflicted bullet.
Where he was prior to 1978, though, remains completely baffling.
Through the years, numerous experts and amateur sleuths alike have taken on the task of identifying this identity thief, so far to no avail.
Complicating the matter is that the fingerprints on the suicide weapon were too smudged to use and that someone dropped the man’s computer during the investigation and broke it beyond any information being salvageable.
But once it became clear that “Joe Chandler” had done such a thorough job of erasing his past, authorities came to suspect he was a fugitive, and the U.S. Marshals Service took charge.
U.S. Marshal Peter J. Elliott, who has devoted himself to this quest as his “pet case,”deeply laments the loss of the computer, stating:
“Private detectives, who worked on this case before me, said there were internet searches for Nazism and plastic explosives. I wish I could confirm that.”
Other interested parties have embarked on deep dives into the conundrum, as well. Author James Renner, whose book The Man From Primrose Lane is inspired by Chandler, did unearth one curious incident.
In 1989, the bogus Chandler checked into a real hospital with minor lacerations on his penis. He told doctors he did it while attempting to masturbate with a vacuum cleaner. Renner added:
“I’m not sure if he was honest with them. Maybe he assaulted someone, and they attacked him back. But I wouldn’t put it past him to have built his own masturbation machine. He was always making gadgets.”
Naturally, a multitude of theories have cropped up as to who “Joe Chandler” may have been before he reinvented himself.
We know a few things: He was a white male between age 65 and 70. He stood 5-feet, 7-inches tall and weighed 160 pounds. He had graying brown hair and gray eyes. His abdomen contained a small scar, perhaps from a medical procedure.
All that laid out, the man who was not actually Joe Chandler looked like a lot of potentially juicy suspects.
One angle authorities have looked deeply into is that Chandler may have been the Zodiac Killer. Another popular theory is that he was Steven Campbell, a Wyoming attempted-murder suspect who simply vanished.
Other researchers propose Campbell was an active Nazi during World War II, or on the run from the mob, or perhaps even a former secret agent. As James Renner noted:
“The way he so expertly changed his name and moved to a new place makes me think he was a spy.”
The most significant breakthrough to date occurred in 2016, when forensic genealogist Colleen Fitzpatrick of the DNA Doe Project used Y-chromosome information to link the unknown man to the last name “Nicholas.”
It suggests a Russian background but, alas, that moniker and its variations are hugely common.
As U.S. Marshal Elliot observed, “We’re now in the ballpark with his surname, [but] there are a hundred thousand seats in the ballpark.”