Authorities in two states are investigating why an elderly Johnstown man’s body was stuffed into a suitcase and driven 19 hours to Des Arc, Arkansas.
Johnstown police Lt. David Gilbo said Wednesday that authorities in Arkansas discovered the body of a man on Sunday believed to be 89 or 90 years old who lived at 329 North Perry St. in Johnstown.
"There was human remains found in Arkansas. Right now, it's looking like it was a natural-cause death, but we're not fully prepared to say that until we get all the results of the testing done," Gilbo said.
Police are not releasing the name of the man, pending notification of his family. Investigators believe the man had been dead anywhere from 2 to 6 weeks.
Gilbo said police believe two individuals who lived on North Perry Street with the man, and may have functioned as caregivers, drove his body to Arkansas for reasons unknown. One of the individuals, whom Gilbo identified as Michael Stivers, is in custody in Arkansas. A woman who was with him was released by police before police found the man’s body and is now being sought by Arkansas authorities. The woman was not named.
Another woman who lives at the white, two-story North Perry Street house was detained for questioning but released, Gilbo said. The woman, who remains unnamed, was not related to the man in the suitcase. The two individuals who drove the body to Arkansas are also not believed to be related to the man.
“Nobody was related to him, they were all just living here,” he said.
Gilbo said the Johnstown Police Department served a search warrant at the house Wednesday morning that was part of a joint investigation with the Arkansas State Police.
Gilbo indicated there was some sort of plan between the individuals who drove the body to Arkansas and their relatives that live in that state, but that it was foiled when the body was discovered by children.
“One of the relatives of these individuals that were driving down there, I guess the kids, saw the suitcase, opened it, saw the body, and that led to a chain of events where they ended up pulling off the road, dumping the suitcase into the woods,” said Gilbo.
Authorities in Arkansas were alerted when they got a call about an unknown vehicle in an area of Des Arc, Arkansas. Police pulled the vehicle over and arrested a male on an outstanding warrant and the female on driving with a suspended license. Gilbo said police were called back to the scene by the original tipster, at which time they found the suitcase containing the body. Police released the female prior to finding the body, and are now actively searching for her, Gilbo said.
When police searched the vehicle they found the man’s NYS identification card, which listed the North Perry Street apartment as his residence. Police in Arkansas alerted the Johnstown Police Department, who have had the house under surveillance since Monday night. Theyserved a search warrant at the residence on Wednesday morning.
Gilbo stressed that police believe the man died of natural causes, and that an autopsy will be performed on his body.
Gilbo said if authorities in Arkansas charge the person they have in custody with improperly disposing of a body, police in New York would not duplicate the charge in their jurisdiction. He added that he doesn’t know if anyone in New York will face charges in connection with the case.
“We’re still in the investigative stage, it’s too early to say,” he said.
Gilbo said one theory as to why the man’s body was being driven to Arkansas is possible Social Security or other benefits fraud.
“We don’t know if it was financially related, if someone was trying to make it appear that he was still alive so they could collect ... it’s a possibility. It’s the only other explanation we can come up with as to why you would transport a guy who died naturally,” said Gilbo.
A state police forensics unit was at the home for much of Wednesday looking for clues into the man's death. Yellow crime scene tape ringed the white, two-story, multifamily home.
Trooper Mark Cepiel confirmed that a state police forensics team is assisting in the investigation, but said the agency would not be commenting as the Johnstown Police Department is the lead agency on the investigation.
Around 4:15 p.m. Wednesday, soon after the crime scene tape was removed from the home, a woman and two children were seen hurrying into the house. The woman covered her face with what looked like a manila folder.
Gilbo said the case is not being treated as a homicide, and the department is working with state police in Arkansas to determine who was involved in transporting the man's body and what charges may be filed.