The badly burned body of a man found inside a burned building on Christmas Day 2013 has been identified as a result of the work done by the Hamilton County District Attorney’s Office Cold Case Unit.
According to officials with the district attorney’s office, the man was identified as 25-year-old Joshua Zipperer, a homeless man from East Ridge. Officials used dental records to identify the remains after an investigator with the Cold Case unit began a review of files in April 2017.
Officials with the DA’s office said that Zipperer’s mother reported him missing on Dec. 30, 2013 after she had seen media reports about a body being discovered in the debris of the burned building that once housed the Hungry Fisherman on Ringgold Road. The woman was concerned that it might be her son.
According to the DA’s office, Zipperer had been living in a homeless camp near the Hungry Fisherman building. He normally kept in frequent contact with his mom, typically calling her several times each day. His mother told police she had last seen her son at the Wendy’s on Ringgold Road around 6:30pm on Christmas Eve and she had not heard from him since.
Zipperer had a recorded height of 6’1”, well above the 5’4” – 5’7” range the UT anthropologist had given the fire victim. He was also five years younger than the 30-40 year age range the medical examiner gave the fire victim.
At about 3 a.m. on Wednesday, December 25, 2013, East Ridge firefighters responded to an extensive fire at 6715 Ringgold Road. The burning building originally housed the Hungry Fisherman restaurant; it had long been vacant and was used frequently as shelter by homeless people. Investigators were unable to determine what caused the fire.
During a walkthrough of the burned out building, investigators found human remains. Because of extensive thermal damage, the victim’s race and gender could not be determined on scene. An autopsy revealed the victim was a white male, age 30-40, who died of an acute alcohol overdose prior to the fire. The medical examiner could not determine the victim’s eye or hair color.
An anthropologist from the University of Tennessee examined the remains and determined the victim had been 5’4” – 5’7” in height and concluded the victim’s dental records would be needed for positive identification.
In April 2017, HCDA Cold Case Unit Investigator Michael Ray began reviewing the U.S. Department of Justice’s NamUs (National Missing and Unidentified Persons System) repository for all missing and unidentified persons cases related to Hamilton County and its municipalities.
Acting on a hunch, Investigator Ray began delving into the circumstances of Zipperer’s disappearance and the possibility the fire remains belonged to the missing man.
Investigator Ray tracked down Zipperer’s dental records and gave them to Dr. Heath Blockley, a Chattanooga dentist who provides forensic odontology exams for the Hamilton County Medical Examiner’s Office. Dr. Blockley compared Zipperer’s dental records to the dental photos taken during the autopsy and concluded they matched.
Dr. Steven Cogswell, who performed the 2013 autopsy on the fire victim, then reviewed the fire death case and revised the autopsy report.
District Attorney General Neal Pinkston and the CCU met this morning with Joshua Zipperer’s mother. She told officials that she did not want to talk to the media and asked that her privacy be respected.
DA’s Cold Case Unit
District Attorney General Neal Pinkston created the Cold Case Unit upon taking office in September 2014 to review the 200 unsolved homicides and missing persons cases in Hamilton County. The Unit is led by retired CPD Captain Mike Mathis. Chattanooga Police Chief Fred Fletcher and Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond each provide an investigator to the unit. If you have information about any cold case, please contact us using the Cold Case Hotline at 423-209-7470 or by email at [email protected].