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Identifying frozen body found by river in Grand Forks may be a difficult process

Emergency personal investigate a scene were police say a person was found dead on Wednesday, March 22, 2017 in Grand Forks, N.D. next to the railroad bridge by the Red River. (Jesse Trelstad/Grand Forks Herald)

The process of identifying a man found encased in ice underneath a pier of the railroad bridge along the Red River in downtown Grand Forks could be lengthy, investigators say.

The body was found by a pedestrian walking along the river about 3:15 Wednesday afternoon inside of the wooden bridge pier.

After police investigators and the Grand Forks County Medical Examiner photographed and documented the scene, Grand Forks Firefighters worked to free the body from the ice. The process took hours, but the body was recovered by 9 p.m.

Lt. Brett Johnson with the police investigations bureau said the person was a white male. Police recovered a beige backpack they are hoping can produce some evidence, but the frozen state in which the man was found have made basics, like trying to find an age range, difficult.

"It's pretty tough to tell until we get him into a condition to perform an examination," Johnson said.

There are no current missing persons investigations active in Grand Forks, Johnson said. The department is contacting regional agencies for missing persons reports.

"Sometimes there will be identifying markings we can trace back, whether it's scars or tattoos, that kind of thing," he said. "Sometimes we'll have to rely on fingerprints. Sometimes we can match all that together with missing people."

Although they are hoping personal effects in the backpack will provide leads, Johnson said investigators cannot solely rely on those to make an identification as the person may have had someone else's belongings.

Because of the body's frozen state, an autopsy will likely be delayed until it can thaw, Johnson said.

Investigators have also discussed asking for help from the National Weather Service to see when the river thawed and re-froze this winter to try to develop a timeline.

Police say they will also check in with the Northlands Rescue Mission to see if there have been missings persons.

Third body this year

The body marks the third person found dead in the elements in Grand Forks in the past year. On Dec. 22, the body of 61-year-old Richard Bumford was also found near the Greenway three blocks north of the Sorlie Bridge downtown. Police did not notify the public about the discovery, saying there was no evidence of foul play or public endangerment. Police also found no clear evidence indicating that Bumford—who had previously been homeless and whose listed residence was the Northlands Rescue Mission in Grand Forks—was sleeping outside.

On Aug. 9, police responded to a dead body on a park bench in Town Square. The man was identified as Michael Wells, 57. Police also did not issue a public notice of discovery in that case.