Santa Cruz County 1998 murder victim identified using DNA technology

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SANTA CRUZ — An adult murder victim found dead, wrapped in a tarp and tossed down a Santa Cruz hillside in 1998 has been identified as Eric P. Cupo.

Three suspects were convicted of the murder, but the identity of the victim remained classified as a “John Doe” for more than 20 years.

The case began on Sunday, December 27, 1998, when a body wrapped in a tarp was discovered down a hillside on Bear Creek Rd. in rural Santa Cruz County.

The remains were in an advanced state of decomposition. An autopsy revealed the most striking aspect of injury was blunt force trauma, but due to the body’s state of decomposition – a majority of the soft tissue was gone — getting an identity proved to be a difficult task.

A subsequent investigation by the Sheriff’s Office resulted in the arrest and conviction of three suspects for the murder.

During the following 20-plus years, the coroner’s office has continued to follow leads regarding the dead man’s identity. In 2021, authorities began utilizing forensic genetic genealogy techniques to finally identify the man and make notification to next of kin.

With the partnership of the California Department of Justice Jan Bashinski DNA Lab, Othram Inc, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation Latent Print Unit, the dead man has now been positively identified as Cupo, who was 22- years-old at the time of his murder.

Detectives have learned that Cupo was born in California. As a young child he was adopted into a family in Philadelphia and later moved to Florida with his adopted father.

Cupo briefly returned to Philadelphia at the age of 18 to live with his adopted mother. From there, Cupo moved around the country, and his family lost regular contact with him. Cupo is believed to have subsequently lived in both Arizona and Ohio. The timeline of his arrival back to California is not clear.

Cupo’s adopted family and biological relatives have been notified of his identification and are grateful to the sheriff’s office for their dedicated and tireless investigation to identify Cupo and bring resolution as to his whereabouts.

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