Skeletal remains found in chimney of Wisconsin music store in 1989 identified as Ronnie Joe Kirk of Tulsa, Oklahoma

May 21, 2024

Ronnie Joe Kirk's body was discovered on September 3, 1989, at a music store on 5225 University Avenue in Madison, Wisconsin. At the time, the store was bookended by a restaurant and a muffler store.

The owner, Steve Leithen, was dealing with a leak in the basement, when he discovered a human skull while looking through a connecting pipe from the boiler to the chimney.

Leithen was shining a flashlight through the pipe when he illuminated the skull.

Later police would discover the rest of the skeletal remains, along with the clothing worn at the time of death, which included  a sleeveless Paisley dress with a matching belt, a long sleeved button down shirt, a shag sweater, an iron cross necklace, socks and pointed low-heeled shoes. There was no underwear, however, there was an extra pair of socks.

Additional items found included a pocket comb, as well as a butter knife.

Initially, police described the clothing as “feminine.”

The remains were sent to an anthropologist at the University of Wisconsin for analysis. Results revealed that the remains belonged to that of a biological Caucasian male, estimated to be around 18-35 years old, and approximately 5”5 - 5’ 7″ tall.

The pelvic bones were "severely fractured," injuries which may have been caused at the time of death.

The post-mortem interval was estimated to be between 2 months and 2 years. Dane County Coroner, Ray Wosepka, said it was difficult to pinpoint exactly how long the body had been there due to the remains already being skeletal, coupled with the temperature changes within the chimney itself over the seasons.


Police were perplexed about how the body even got there, stating that there was no way the victim could have gotten into the pipe from inside the building.

In an interview with the Wisconsin State Journal on September 10, 1989, Detective Jim Grann said: "It was probably not that tight from an anthropological point of view," referring to the victim’s ability to descend down a chimney that was reportedly 11.75 inches in diameter.

According to the article, there was three ways to exit the chimney- the first being obvious, the top, the second and third being a maintenance hatch further down, as well as the cleanout pipe on the bottom. Each exit was the same diameter as the chimney itself.

The question of how a body could decompose within the chimney without emitting a foul odor alerting the store owners; was answered, at least hypothetically, by a construction worker who helped remove the skeletal remains by making a larger hole on the outside of the building to ferry them out.

The worker suggested that bakeries and bread stores that had been previously operating in the same building may have covered up the odor.

How exactly the individual managed to fit down the chimney is a mystery, although, investigators at the  time said that looking at the victim’s stature, had they put themselves in that position of their own accord, it wouldn’t have been completely impossible for them to have wriggled their way down the chimney, although getting back up in the same way would be out of the question.

Grann agreed that Doe could have been either a robber or a murder victim, adding that if they were a victim of homicide, there was no way of knowing if they had been trapped alive in the chimney after being forced inside, or, killed somewhere else and later transported there. The remains, he speculated, may have become stuck in the chimney, and fell as the body decayed over time.

Police at the time attempted to match Doe's physical description to previous inmates at the Dane County Jail, but nothing came back. It was the same for the victim’s dentals. They asked the public to consider if they knew, or had known, a person fitting the description of a slender Caucasian individual, around 5"5 - 5"7, with an overbite and brown hair.


Three decades later, in late 2019, the City of Madison Police Department took another look at the case, this time with the intention of utilizing the victim's DNA to create a profile for the victim who had come to be known as "Chimney Doe."

They contacted the DNA Doe Project for assistance with the case.

It took Astrea Forensics Laboratory over two years to develop a profile from a hair without a root, a recent break-through in DNA technology that has helped to solve multiple cases in recent times.

Astrea Forensics is a Santa Cruz based laboratory founded in 2019 by paleogeneticists.

According to the mission statement on their website, Astrea Forensics “apply ancient DNA techniques and direct genome sequencing to difficult-to-solve forensic casework and the identification of human remains,” and their methods “make it possible to recover genetic profiles from rootless hair and other highly degraded samples that otherwise fail traditional forensic DNA testing,” regardless of how old the case is, as long as there is a viable sample to work with.

Once the sample was obtained and a profile created, Doe’s results were uploaded to a genetic genealogy database, eventually leading to the victim’s identity: Ronnie Joe Kirk.

The Doe Network team soon learned that Kirk had been adopted, which made tracing the family members difficult, but they were finally able to solve the mystery of Chimney Doe’s true identity.

 As for what happened and how Kirk’s body ended up there- the mystery remains.

Sources: [X][X][X][X]


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