"Boulder Jane Doe" and Me ~ Frustrations with a cold case,
Submitted by: Silvia Pettem
A decade ago, I first saw a gravestone in Boulder Colorado's Columbia Cemetery that read, "Jane Doe, April 1954, Age About 20 Years." I was participating in a "cemetery re-enactment" at the time, sponsored by two local historical organizations. I was one of several people who dressed as a historical character buried in the cemetery. On one particular fall day, the public was invited, and each of us gave first-person accounts of our characters. I was Mary Rippon (first woman professor at the University of Colorado) and someone else played the part of "Jane Doe." I was told that she was an unidentified murder victim found near Boulder in 1954. Her killer was
I had two daughters, one just older than 20 years and one just younger. I wondered who Jane Doe was and, as a mother, I wondered who her mother was. How could a 20-year-old be murdered and no one come forward to claim her? Was she a run-away, abused by a boyfriend or husband? Or was she hitchhiking or somehow abducted? Who was she, and where did she come from?
As the years went by, my curiosity deepened. I contacted the Sheriff's Office and found out that the outgoing Sheriff in 1970 either took with him or destroyed all records prior to 1970! (This outraged me into becoming an activist in public records access. More on that later.) Since I worked at the local newspaper, I looked up the "unidentified murdered girl, 1954" in the newspaper's archives. I found a lot of brittle and yellowed newspaper articles carefully clipped by a librarian from long ago.
A friend was the first to suggest that perhaps today's technology could help to identify Jane Doe. I saw a TV program (48 Hours?) on the "Tent Girl" identified by Todd Matthews who was one of the founders of the Doe Network. Finally, in September 2003, I approached the Boulder County Sheriff and asked him if Jane Doe's body could be exhumed and her DNA profiled so that it could be compared to potential relatives and lead to her identification. My goal, then and now, has always been to return her remains to her family.
The Sheriff was intrigued with my idea, but he couldn't justify using tax-payers' money. So he challenged me to raise private funds. I started a "Jane Doe Fund" with the Boulder Historical Society so that donors could earmark their donations for the non-profit organization (thus getting a tax write-off). I raised more than $4,000, plus I enlisted the pro-bono help of members of the Philadelphia-based Vidocq Society.
In June 2004, with 3 members of the Vidocq Society flown in to Boulder from various parts of the country, they and the Sheriff's Office exhumed Jane Doe's remains. I felt privileged to be allowed at the grave during this exhumation. We invited the TV program "America's Most Wanted" to film the event and offered them exclusive coverage. The casket had disintegrated underground, and Boulder Jane Doe's remains took two days to remove (like an archeological dig), bone by bone. Two members of the Vidocq Society reassembled her skull which was in many pieces. Jane Doe's DNA was profiled, and Marion Joan McDowell of Toronto (missing since December 1953) was ruled out.
In the spring of 2005, Vidocq member and noted sculptor Frank Bender created a "bust" of Jane Doe, based on her skull. I wish he had given her a 1950s hair style, but this facial reconstruction is posted on www.boulderjanedoe.com. So far, we have no leads as to her identity.
Within the past year, we wiped out the money in our Jane Doe Fund by having another DNA profile done, as there were some questions about the quality control of the first profile. (I learned that DNA is not "black-and-white." Nor is it a magic answer to all questions.) With both the first and second profiles, we have ruled out Twylia May Embrey, a young woman missing from Nebraska.
I the summer of 2005, I called "America's Most Wanted" and asked about the status of our program. I was told that the producer left for another job, and the show was off. When I explained that we had given them exclusive coverage during the exhumation and couldn't do that again, we were assigned to a new producer. That producer brought his film crew back to Boulder two more times. This segment, we are
told, is edited and ready to go. But it still hasn't been on the air! We NEED the program in order to get Jane Doe's face out to a national audience and bring in some leads. Again, my goal is to identify this murder victim and return her
remains to her family.
In the meantime, I have a devoted hardcore group of researchers who are working on every woman reported missing in the spring of 1954, trying to find out if any were ever were found. We are now trying to find Katherine (or Catherine) Dyer, reported missing shortly before Jane Doe's body was found on April 8, 1954.
I shouldn't complain, as we have made great progress, i.e., convincing law enforcement to reopen the case,raising money and pro-bono help of forensic experts, exhuming the remains, reassembling the skull, profiling the DNA, completing a
facial reconstruction, and ruling out two possible young women. So, why am I so frustrated? I guess it's because people who have donated funds don't see any results. When "America's Most Wanted" airs the show, we hope to get some leads, but we don't have an air date yet, so we don't know when that will be. For so long, people have been asking me how the Jane Doe research is going, and I tell them we still don't have an answer.
My research into missing young women, as well as possible murder suspects, has led me into a lot of frustration with access to public records. I may become an activist not only in trying to solve cold cases, but also how to deal with bureaucracies who don't seem to care at all about people who do historical research.
I would like to correspond with others who have similar frustrations. Why are cold cases a low-priority with law-enforcement? Why is obtaining public records like pulling teeth? There are exceptions, of course. I've found some very interested and dedicated people in my decade-long pursuit, but they are the exceptions. Trying to solve the identity of Boulder Jane Doe has led to many tangents, i.e., helping the family of Twylia May Embrey, trying to uncover the remains of Arizona's "Little Miss X." Please be warned, this kind of research is addictive!
Who else is going through the highs of actually FINDING something, as well as the lows of waiting and waiting and waiting? I'd love to hear from you. Thanks so much for listening.
Boulder Jane Doe Web Site