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Slain Jane Doe's curious case in Ohio still puzzles after 35 years

| Saturday, June 4, 2016, 9:00 p.m.
'Jane Doe' was found in a ditch in Miami County, Ohio, on April 24, 1981. Authorities have been unable to identify her, but new technology that tested pollen on her clothes recently determined that she was likely from a northeastern state, perhaps Pennsylvania. She is depicted here in a computer regeneration.
'Jane Doe' was found in a ditch in Miami County, Ohio, on April 24, 1981. Authorities have been unable to identify her, but new technology that tested pollen on her clothes recently determined that she was likely from a northeastern state, perhaps Pennsylvania. She is depicted here in a computer regeneration.

She is buried in a section of the cemetery known as the potter's field.

Her tombstone reads, “Jane Doe.”

When they put her to rest, detectives whom she never met served as pallbearers. People from town who knew only of her fate came to leave flowers.

Thirty-five years later, they still do.

“I call her Dorothy, because she looks like Dorothy from ‘The Wizard of Oz,' ” a cemetery groundskeeper recently told a detective visiting the grave. “I just want to send her home. Put on her ruby shoes and send her back where she belongs.”

If only they knew where that was.

Jane Doe had been dead less than two days when Miami County, Ohio, sheriff's deputies found her April 24, 1981. Her body had been tossed in a ditch on a desolate country road, far from any homes.

She was white, approximately 5 feet 6 inches tall and 125 pounds. She had reddish hair, freckles and a “ruddy” complexion, suggesting she enjoyed the outdoors. Her hair was braided into two pigtails.

Her clothes consisted of bellbottom jeans, a white bra, brown turtleneck sweater with orange crisscrosses, and a buckskin pullover jacket. Her shoes, socks and underwear were missing, as were any bags or forms of identification. Her pockets were empty.

She was well-groomed, “someone who cared for herself,” said Carol Schweitzer, a senior forensic case specialist for the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.

Her eyebrows were neatly plucked, her clothes clean, her teeth perfectly aligned and brilliantly white.

But she also had several small scars on her body, including one on her left wrist that was over 2 inches long.

She had been strangled. The coroner also found blunt force trauma to her forehead and a lacerated liver, possibly the result of a blow. Authorities estimated her age at 18 to 24, though Miami County Sheriff's Detective Steve Hickey thinks she looks closer to 15.

“Something like that, it's hard not to make it personal,” Hickey said. “You see her (autopsy) photos and just wonder who she is. It makes you realize, you're here for a reason: to solve this.”

Hickey took over the case three years ago, the third detective to adopt Jane Doe.

The only evidence was her body and her clothes. No ID, no hometown, no known family or friends.

There were plenty of tips in 1981, said Hickey, who hadn't been born yet, but “none panned out.”

“Some locals said they saw her at a bar, but those leads didn't go anywhere.”

Years passed. Detectives kept the case open, constantly checking Missing Persons databases. Strangers continued to leave flowers at the grave in Riverside Cemetery in Troy, Miami County.

Investigators suspect Jane Doe was killed elsewhere and dumped along Greenlee Road just west of Troy in Newton Township. They concluded this because her bare feet were clean, showing no indication of walking on dirt, and because Interstate 75 is just 5 miles away, making it a convenient and discreet drop-off spot.

And they are certain she was not from the area. Somebody would have known her.

“She's either from a different state or country, maybe Canada or Mexico,” Hickey says. “But was she a runaway? A juvenile? A hitchhiker? We don't know.”

This year, Hickey called Schweitzer at the missing children center's headquarters in Virginia. She suggested Hickey send the clothes — sealed all these years in a box in the sheriff's office property room — to the Customs and Border Protection Southwest Regional Science Center in Houston, to test pollen particles. They use the technology on drug cases to trace smuggled drugs, Schweitzer said. Why not try it on Jane Doe, too?

The results were startlingly specific: Pollen on Jane Doe's clothes suggests she was likely from or spent at least a year in the Northeast, specifically a dry-oak forest region that includes Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Further samples, from the buckskin jacket, showed that she had recently visited a more arid region, likely in the West or northern Mexico. Soot on her clothes suggested she was often in larger cities.

“It was amazing,” Hickey said. “We had no idea they could even do that.”

Hickey has since sent hair samples to a lab in Utah hoping for more insight, including the origins of the water she drank in her final weeks. If additional DNA or dental testing is required, the sheriff's office might exhume Jane Doe's body.

“We want a name with the face,” Hickey said. “We want to provide a proper burial. Then we turn a corner and hopefully find a suspect.”

“She deserves to have her name given back to her, her story told and justice served,” Schweitzer said.

In autopsy photos, blood marks the wound on Jane Doe's forehead. Her pigtails are disheveled. Her lips are parted in a slight grimace.

There are about 20 of the photos, the only images Hickey had seen of his Jane Doe until the missing children center created a new facial reconstruction, using technology that renders a more accurate likeness than anything available in 1981.

Hickey recalled the moment he saw the rendering.

It was nice to see her this way, he said. They cleaned up her wounds. Her pigtails were tight and neat. Her lips now formed a slight smile.

But most of all, he said, it was the eyes.

They were open.

“I'd never seen my Jane Doe with her eyes open,” Hickey said. “It was like she was finally looking at me. ‘Here I am. Please solve this case for me.' ”

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