In the earliest days of the site, British true-crime writer Kirk Pepi emailed us about a story he’d been working on concerning a mysterious man who had been found dead in a Washington State motel room shortly after 9/11. Despite a collection of amateur internet sleuths obsessively working his case, no one knew his identity. As such, we called Pepi’s story, “The Strange Case of the Man with No Name.” It was among our highest-trafficked pieces in 2016, our inaugural year of publishing. And while the story continued to generate a lot of interest over the last couple of years, the case itself seemed no closer to a resolution.
Until late last week, that is.
On Thursday evening, we received word that the Man with No Name had been identified. And so, over the last few days, Pepi has reached out to the Reddit community that helped crack the nearly 17-year-old cold case to find out how the unknown man’s name was finally uncovered; everything we know about him at the moment; and what it feels like to solve the answer to one of the internet’s biggest mysteries.
Two strangers, thousands of miles apart, were haunted by the same ghost.
In California, a father suffered sleepless nights thinking about his 25-year-old son, who vanished unexpectedly. In Canada, Lyndsay Sawler couldn’t shake the story of the unknown man she’d stumbled upon on the internet. “Something always brought me back to him,” she tells me. He had hung himself with the belt that had kept his Levis around his waist in a cheap motel room in Amanda Park, Washington, days after 9/11. That, though, was about all anyone knew about him. There was no I.D. in his room. No driver’s license. No bank card. No passport. Only the name he checked in with: “Lyle Stevik.”
The police, however, couldn’t find a Lyle Stevik on any database, census or electoral roll. It was most likely a fake name. Sawler, though, didn’t want to give up trying to identify him. So three years ago, she became a moderator at the subreddit r/LyleStevik and picked up where the cops left off. “It was like a scavenger hunt,” she says. “There were so many clues, but they all led nowhere.”
At first, the sub had a handful of members. But after Sawler spread the word about Stevik in larger communities like r/UnresolvedMysteries, there was a surge of interest. “We’ve gone from strangers all over the world to a family of people working together toward a common goal.”
Some Redditors thought their Doe was a 9/11 terrorist, perhaps the possible 20th hijacker, who had backed out at the last minute. “Maybe he was of Middle Eastern descent and was involved in the planning and execution of 9/11,” one poster pondered. “Maybe he was meant to martyr himself and felt guilt over letting down his comrades, or he helped plan the event, saw the destruction he helped create and couldn’t handle the guilt.”
Others wondered if he was a cult member, a sex offender or a spy. “This could explain why no one’s come forward and identified him,” another poster theorized. “I assume a spy would be estranged from friends and family or anyone else for that matter.”
The reality, however, is far more mundane.
It turns out that Stevik was a runaway, a troubled twentysomething, who, for one reason for another, decided to end his life.
The DNA Doe Project, a nonprofit that uses genome testing to solve old John and Jane Doe cases, announced that they’d identified Stevik on May 8. They had run his DNA through genetic genealogy databases and traced his relatives back to Alameda County, California, 850 miles away from where he died. The police notified his father. “Lyle’s case has taken hundreds of hours of hard work by a team of nearly 20 skilled and dedicated volunteers,” the DNA Doe Project wrote on its Facebook page. “In the end, all the DNA matches and all the family trees and all the research paid off. This took persistence, good solid genealogy and detective work.”
“I found out he was identified in an email, and I had to read it four or five times,” says Sawler. “It’s been a few days now, and I still don’t think it’s clicked for me 100 percent. I’ve shed some tears.”
Without Reddit, the case would still be cold. Sawler and the 4,000 members of her sub scoured missing person databases like the NamUs and the Doe Network. They posted Stevik’s physical characteristics — 6-foot-2, 140 pounds, black hair, hazel eyes, attached earlobes — on social media with the hope that someone, somewhere, would recognize him. Not to mention, they were the ones who first contacted the DNA Doe Project about Stevik. “The most frustrating part was getting excited about a lead and it going nowhere. We had quite a few, but none ever panned out,” Sawler says.
At times, it seemed like she was on a wild internet goose chase. “The strangest post? Someone provided us with [vague] details of Lyle’s family, but they couldn’t tell us who he was. Sometimes trolls make you want to believe them.”
Since the news of Stevik’s identification broke, Redditors have posted tributes — messages of sorrow and support. “This case has touched me so deeply, but I feel like right now it’s time to leave the party,” one person wrote. “His family knows. That’s it. Gotta move on. But he will always stay in my heart, and I know he’ll stay in the hearts of so, so many people. ‘Lyle’ will live on. Forever.”
“I think Lyle resonated with me because I’ve dealt with depression, anxiety and mental illness,” added another. “I want his family to know that so many people cared about him.” Case in point: Members of the sub have visited Fern Hill Cemetery in Aberdeen, Washington, where Stevik is buried. And one person composed an instrumental piece called “Lyle’s Song”:
“It was my own way of honoring him,” says Erika H., who created a collage of Stevik. “Making this was a small gesture, but it was the most a stranger could do. It hurts me to think that another human would end their life in this way.”
The police haven’t disclosed Stevik’s real name to protect his family’s privacy, which has left some subscribers feeling frustrated. “I’m so happy that his family has answers, but part of me is just desperate to know what his real name was. Even just his forename,” one person writes.
“He’ll be identified,” writes another. “Through public records and weirdo sleuths, we’ll know who he is this year.”
That said: “This will not be the place where those answers will be shared,” one of the sub’s moderators promises.
Of course, there are still other questions, too. Lots of them. Like, why did Stevik conceal his identity? What was he running from? Why did he think suicide was the only way to get away from it? And how did he end up in Washington and so far from home?
As for Sawler, she’s working with the Medical Examiner’s Office of Miami-Dade County on other unsolved cases, and her sub will remain open for discussion, despite some threads and chatter to the contrary. “It was a group of individuals working toward something really amazing,” she says. “And yes, it was all worth it.”