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Remains found in Florida in 1981 are determined to be missing Tennessee man

James Sanders was last seen in 1978, at a bus stop in Tennessee headed to North Carolina where he planned to work at an aunt’s tobacco farm. He never arrived.

RUTHERFORD COUNTY, Tenn. — A Midstate family has some answers about what happened to their loved one after more than 40 years.

It was ultimately DNA samples that helped crack the case.

43 years ago, James Sanders never returned home to Portland, Tennessee. 

"For a long time, they've had to have wondered where their father was," Detective Richard Brinkley with the Rutherford County Sheriff's Office said. 

Detective Brinkley spoke with James Sanders' son on Tuesday. Brinkley explained DNA led to his father's remains being identified in Immokalee, Florida. 

"He was grateful for our work too," Brinkley said.

James Sanders' brother called the sheriff's office about a missing man in 2014.

Investigators said a burned body turned up at Poole Knobs Recreation Area in La Vergne in 1978. That's the same year Sanders disappeared. 

"Working cold cases especially something like this one, it's similar to a rollercoaster. A lot of ups and downs with it," Brinkley said.

Sanders was last seen on Jan. 1, 1978, at a bus stop in Tennessee en route to North Carolina where he planned to work at an aunt’s tobacco farm. Sanders never arrived at his aunt’s farm and was never heard from again.

Detectives followed up because of the similarities between the two missing men. Family members even sent in DNA samples to see if there was a match in January of 2015. 

"When those results came back, it did not match our John Doe. So, those results stayed with the lab," Brinkley said.

It wasn't until this past Friday, the Collier County, Florida Sheriff Kevin Rambosk announced the lab matched bone from a body discovered there to Sanders' DNA submitted by Rutherford County detectives.

"More than anything, it shows the public that we don't quit," Brinkley said.

While one family has answers, another is still waiting.

The Rutherford County Sheriff's Office is working with a lab to identify the man found in La Vergne. They've built a DNA profile trying to find a family match. 

"I think that's what it's going to take to identify our John Doe," Brinkley said.

Brinkley is still trying to identify the suspects who killed the unidentified man while focusing on the identity of the victim.

An autopsy report described the unidentified man as being in his late 30s who was 5'10" tall. He had long, brown hair with a receding hairline and a reddish-brown and gray beard. He had a scar on his stomach, no teeth but an upper denture and a quarter-size mole near his waistline

Detectives worked with Dr. Lee Meadows Jantz from the state Forensic Anthropology Center who said the man’s DNA was submitted to the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System to search for a match. No results have been found.

A profile of the unidentified man was added to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System.

The sheriff’s office is partnering with Othram, a private DNA lab that recovers human DNA to solve murder cases, with hopes for an identification. The team is actively working on matches.

Anyone who may have information on the man may contact Brinkley at 615-904-3045 or email.

This story was originally reported by WSMV in Nashville.

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