Sunday, August 26, 2012

Sacramento deputy seeks to rescue long-dead Jane Doe from anonymity - Sacramento Bee

More than 30 years ago, somebody dumped a young woman's nearly naked body in a vacant stretch of weeds along Interstate 5.

Her body has long since been recovered, cremated and laid to rest in a local cemetery. Yet she remains nameless.

Paige Kneeland was just 7 years old when a Caltrans worker came across the woman's decomposing body on Oct. 27, 1981. Now, as a Sacramento County sheriff's deputy assigned to cold cases, Kneeland is committed to rescuing this Jane Doe from anonymity.

In the nine years since Kneeland first reviewed the woman's file, she has returned to it time and again, hoping the now-familiar details will one day offer a new lead.

"I really want to ID this girl," she said plaintively.

The Sacramento County Coroner's Office has 73 other cases like this Jane Doe, nameless bodies dating back to 1975. Without identities, they are reduced to case numbers, physical descriptors and, occasionally, artist sketches or eerie facial models.

Less than half are believed to be victims of homicide.

Even today, an age of advanced technology and forensics, that list is growing. Recently added, body No. 74 is a man found shot to death in Wilton in early April.

It is, as it turns out, not so unusual to die without anybody knowing who you are.

"I think bizarre is a good word for it," Coroner Gregory Wyatt said of the phenomenon. "I just don't think it's unexpected or uncommon, as our culture and our society has become more insulated … these days."

Families are spread out more than ever, and some fall out of touch, Wyatt said. Drugs, alcohol, bad blood or just physical distance are sometimes to blame. People live alone, work from home or end up on the streets â€" all reducing the amount of regular human contact. Missing people don't get reported; matches don't get made.

A red rose tattoo

Kneeland's Jane Doe was found about 30 feet from I-5's southbound lanes, nearly two miles south of the Freeport overpass, in a patch of land empty to this day. She wore only her underwear.

Her body had largely decomposed, save for a patch of mummified skin on her right hip revealing a tattoo of a red rose.

Forensic pathologists and anthropologists have pieced together a surprisingly detailed portrait of an otherwise anonymous woman: She was white, between 5-foot-1 and 5-foot-5, and between 22 and 29 years old when she died, which likely happened six weeks to six months before she was found. She had shoulder-length brown hair with highlights, and long, natural fingernails.

Nicotine stains on her teeth suggest she was a smoker. Dental work had been done on her bottom teeth, and one lower incisor overlapped another. She had a small hole in her sternum.

Jane Doe's remains offered no clues about how she died, and Kneeland acknowledges she could have died of an overdose. Nevertheless, Kneeland and her colleagues suspect foul play was somehow involved, given that her body almost certainly was dumped.

A tie tack shaped like a martini glass was found nearby, but it was corroded, and could be either evidence or trash.

Detectives at the time ran out of leads. Kneeland, who said she has a "soft spot" for such cases, picked up the file in 2003 as she was doing routine reviews of cold case files, and often revisits it.

"It just kind of stuck with me," she said. "Why hasn't she been identified?"

At the time her body was found, the most commonly used database of Jane and John Doe cases in California today â€" the Missing and Unidentified Persons System, which feeds into the National Crime Information Center â€" did not exist.

If the woman who is Jane Doe had been reported missing, her case should have been added retroactively to the database when MUPS was created. But that late addition might never have happened.

Another possibility Kneeland must consider: Nobody ever reported Jane Doe missing.

This is one of many challenges facing detectives delving into aging Jane and John Doe cases. Another is a lack of DNA evidence: When the woman's body was discovered, DNA testing hadn't yet been discovered, so it often wasn't preserved.

"It's very difficult when the evidence isn't there," said Sgt. Jim Barnes, head of the sheriff's homicide unit. "It's no fault of (investigators from that time). They didn't even know DNA was a possibility."

Kneeland got lucky. As she immersed herself in Jane Doe's case, she found a piece of vertebra had been saved. She sent it to the state Department of Justice for DNA extraction, and the profile was entered into NCIC in 2008.

There have been no hits so far.

"Time is and was definitely our enemy in this," Kneeland said, "and most cases like this."

Names can be elusive

Doe cases are not exactly common. In most cases, law enforcement officers and the coroner are able to identify the deceased, at least tentatively, within hours.

But some names can be elusive. Joseph Knowles, 61, went nameless for two days in April after he died while running in the Land Park area with no identification on him.

Ultimately, the coroner's office discovered his identity among information stored in his MP3 player â€" after authorities had sought the public's help.

That month, a man in his 20s or 30s was found shirtless and shot to death in Wilton. He remains a John Doe.

His case is one of dozens featured in a section of the coroner's website dedicated to unidentified persons. Since it was created in 2006, one John Doe has been identified through the website â€" a Sacramento police detective perusing the site recognized an artist's sketch. Authorities are hoping for more matches.

"Every human being deserves an identity," Wyatt said. "Who we are â€" our ID â€" that just to me, personally, seems so fundamental to human dignity. … That's how individuals are remembered."

Doing follow-up on a case in 2008, Kneeland called the ex-wife of a man missing since 1997. She learned the man had broken his nose several times â€" and remembered a case from the same year in which the John Doe had a deviated septum.

Despite being told repeatedly that the cases didn't match, Kneeland submitted DNA for comparison. Results later revealed that John Doe was 61-year-old George Steven Yager.

Kneeland notified the man's daughters, who had been convinced he walked away from them when they were teenagers. His homicide remains unsolved, Kneeland said, but at least his identity, and his fate, is known.

"They said just knowing that wasn't the case â€" he didn't abandon them â€" to them that was enough," she said. "At least we were able to … give them peace of mind."

LEADS SOUGHT

Anyone with information about Jane Doe's name, age or hometown is asked to call Sacramento County Sheriff's Deputy Paige Kneeland at (916) 874-1751 or the homicide tipline at (916) 482-8521. Reference case No. 81-83761.

To view other Jane and John Doe cases in Sacramento County, visit www.coroner.saccounty.net and click on "Unidentified Persons" on the left under "Quicklinks."

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.


Call The Bee's Kim Minugh, (916) 321-1038. Follow her on Twitter @Kim_Minugh.

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