Six years ago to the day, police officers in rural England found something disturbing.
While searching a derelict and overgrown barn in Hampshire during a separate investigation, they stumbled upon a body.
What remained was "essentially a skeleton", serious crime officer Douglas Utting told Euronews, estimating the person had been dead for several years.
The body belonged to a Caucasian man in his 50s, between 177cm to 180cm tall, with brown hair.
Alongside tobacco and cigarette papers, his remains were surrounded by clothing, including a beanie and glasses, a crime thriller novel and objects that suggested he was “living rough or on some sort of journey,” detailed Utting.
Other than that there were no clues.
Officers did not find a passport, driving licence or any other identifying item at the abandoned dairy farm in Micheldever, southern England, where his body was discovered.
There were no other signs, such as a tattoo or jewellery, that could “shorten the list as to who this person could be,” said Utting.
Even his cause of death was a mystery.
Again there was “no obvious trauma, no weapons, no clear signs of suicide, as is often the case in these sorts of cases,” explained the serious crime officer, though investigators now believe the man likely died of natural causes.
Hampshire Police then turned to science, taking DNA samples from his toothbrush and teeth.
But still they drew a blank. They could not match his DNA to anyone on the UK's criminal database or missing persons unit.
At the end of their trail, they resorted to a media appeal, asking anthropologist Dr Chris Rynn to make a facial reconstruction from his skull, which was shared with national newspapers in 2019.
And that’s when the story took an unexpected turn.
Witnesses came forward from Itchen Stoke, a nearby village, and told Hampshire Police the man had knocked on their door in 2012 and asked if he could pitch a tent in their field because he was lost. They accepted.
He was “fairly dishevelled” and spoke “good English, but with a strong French accent,” the witnesses reported to officers.
That night they shared a meal and chatted with him, though since so much time had passed their memory of what he told them was patchy.
Unable to remember his name, they recalled him saying he was from France and had served in the army as a conscript, suffering an injury that left him partially deaf.
One witness himself was ex-army and said the man had a “military bearing about him”, particularly how he organised his possessions.
The unknown man also told the witnesses he had worked for the renowned French actress Catherine Deneuve, though her agency could not verify this when asked by Hampshire Police.
Why exactly he was in southern England remains unclear.
Claiming to have arrived recently, the suspected Frenchman told witnesses he was travelling through the country to get to Ireland to meet his girlfriend.
However, Utting said “all options are open”.
Witnesses claimed he could have been suffering some “mental illness”, though the serious crimes officer said that was “just an opinion”.
“Was he on the run? He could have been, of course, if he was a criminal and had gotten his way onto someone's DNA database, we'd have probably known about it by now… But who knows? That's part of the mystery of this story,” he added.
The next morning the man bid the couple farewell - reluctantly accepting their offer of food and money - and walked off down the country lane “never to be seen again”, said Utting.
With these new leads, Hampshire police turned to science once more to try and unearth more clues. They worked with researchers led by Dr Stuart Black at the University of Reading, who used isotope analysis of his teeth to figure out exactly where the man was from.
Likening it to a “fingerprint”, Dr Black explained to Euronews that as tooth enamel forms during childhood chemicals from the food and water we consume are imprinted in it, indicating where a person was raised.
Dr Black's analysis revealed the man likely spent the first 12 years of life in a “large town or city” somewhere across “quite a large area of southeast France and Corsica to the very western edge of Switzerland.” His early diet was also rich in fish.
'Sad to think that someone died... alone in a dirty, cold barn'
Hampshire police shared this information with the French authorities and Locate, a volunteer organisation that picks up unsolved missing person cases, but their investigation has since hit a dead end.
They are now asking for the public’s help.
“The purpose of our appeal is to get a message to the people of France, western Switzerland and Corsica... [and] ask the question: Does this [story] mean anything to anyone? Does this [image] remind you of someone you haven't seen since 2012?,” said Utting from Hampshire Police.
He urged anyone to come forward with information in what he said was the police’s last-ditch attempt.
“There’s not much more we can do. Asking people in France and Switzerland if they can help really is our last chance to try and put a name to this man and get some closure to a family that might be missing him… someone, somewhere must surely have [information].”
“It is quite sad to think that someone died in these circumstances alone, in a dirty cold [barn] in winter probably, and wasn't found for five years and then not laid to rest,” Utting added.
Outside the UK, anyone who believes they have information relating to the case can contact Locate International anonymously by emailing email@example.com.
Inside the UK, call 101 and ask to be put through to Hampshire & Isle of Wight Constabulary, and quote the reference number 44170467777.
Alternatively, people can submit information via their website: https://www.hampshire.police.uk/tua/tell-us-about/cor/tell-us-about-existing-case-report/.