TROY, Ohio — Homicide detectives in Ohio have a new breakthrough in a murder case that's baffled them for 35 years, and they're giving credit to innovative forensic techniques developed by a company in Salt Lake City.
The unsolved 1981 case has no obvious connection to Utah. The frustration all along for Ohio detectives is they have no idea who the young victim was or where she came from.
"A victim without a name," said detective Stephen Hickey of the Miami County (Ohio) Sheriff's Office. "It's a face without a name."
Now, a Utah lab analysis of the young woman's hair — preserved since she was buried in 1981 — may help crack the case. Chemical isotopes in her hair point to a specific area in north Texas and southern Oklahoma as the victim's possible home.
"It's a very good breakthrough," Hickey said.
The finding stems from the fact that everyone's hair contains a detailed record of the places where a person travels and drinks the water. In the Ohio case, the hair has provided new clues about the victim's travels in the 12 months preceding her murder.
"We see that there are some patterns in this data," said Brett Tipple, senior research scientist for Utah-based IsoForensics Inc. "That suggests she did move quite a bit."
Gravestone for Jane Doe
The unidentified victim was buried in Troy, Ohio, in 1981, under the generic pseudonym Jane Doe. Police drawings made at the time show an attractive young woman with long hair.
"She looked like Dorothy from 'The Wizard of Oz,’” said Cheryl Lavin, the clerk and caretaker at Riverside Cemetery. "She had those long braids."
On a recent visit to the cemetery by two detectives, Lavin told them she's been waiting a long time for answers.
"I've been here 23 years," she said, "and it's my greatest wish that 'Jane' gets to go home."
One of the pallbearers 35 years ago was Bob Sweitzer, the Miami County detective originally assigned to the murder case. He now manages the sheriff's office property room where the meager evidence has been stored since 1981.
"When you can't identify who the person is you have no place to start the investigation," Sweitzer said
Jane Doe's distinctive clothing has always been viewed as a possible clue: "The news media called her the Buckskin Girl because of this coat," Sweitzer said, as he pulled a three-quarter length coat from an evidence bag.
It was the buckskin coat that caught the attention of farmer Greg Bridenbaugh back in 1981. He spotted it alongside a rural Ohio road as he was passing by with friends.
"And I said to one of my guys, I said, 'You know, I'd like to have that,'" Bridenbaugh recalled recently. "Lo and behold, there was somebody in it."
The coat was on the girl's lifeless body. She'd been beaten and strangled.
"She was dumped there," Sweitzer said. "Killed somewhere else and dumped there."
Hickey and detective Ben Garbig are the latest in a long line of Ohio investigators who've tried to crack the case.
"Somebody knows something," Garbig said, conversing with Hickey as the walked alongside the road where the body was discovered.
"Oh, absolutely," Hickey replied.
"Somebody's got a secret," Garbig responded.
At his desk in the Miami County Sheriff's Office, Hickey pointed to a thick binder holding the investigative file for the 1981 case.
"As of right now, in this file, there are no leads," Hickey said.
But that would soon change.
New clues in Utah
"When you've hit a dead end, anything can help," said Lesley Chesson of IsoForensics Inc.
IsoForensics is a spinoff company from the University of Utah. During the past decade, the Research Park-based company has honed its techniques for tracing a person's history through isotopic analysis. Isotopes are variant forms of common elements, such as hydrogen and oxygen, but they have varying atomic weights.
"In isotopes, it's the neutrons that's different," said IsoForensics lab technician Thuan Chau.
Oxygen atoms, for example, usually have an atomic weight of 16 because they have eight protons and eight neutrons. The isotope called Oxygen 18 has two extra neutrons. The two different forms of oxygen turn up in molecules of drinking water all over the world, but the relative ratio of the isotopes varies from place to place.
The water that a person drinks delivers those isotopes to growing tissues in the body. Every day fingernails and hair are growing, they're preserving a record of the isotopic signature in the water that person drinks.
"You're a giant tape recorder," Chesson said. "You're walking around, and all of your tissues in your body are recording what you ate and drank."
Years ago, IsoForensics staffers traveling throughout the country collected samples of drinking water from hundreds of locations. After analyzing the isotopes of oxygen and other elements, the company developed maps that show distinctive regional patterns of isotope ratios. That unique database has helped identify victims in previous murder cases, including one case in Utah.
A murdered woman in Utah was nicknamed Saltair Sally after her unidentified body was found near Saltair, west of Salt Lake City. IsoForensics was able to chart her travels by analyzing isotopes in her hair. That steered the investigation toward a missing person case in Seattle. Later, DNA analysis confirmed that Saltair Sally was a young Seattle mother, Nikki Bakoles.
"The crime itself is unsolved," Chesson said. "How she ended up at Saltair is unsolved."
The Utah company also provided a critical clue for a murdered Jane Doe in California. Isotopes in her hair led to a missing person case in San Francisco. DNA confirmed that California's Jane Doe was Mary Alice Willey.
The hope is that IsoForensic's techniques will eventually help identify Ohio's Jane Doe.
"She's connected to a family," Chesson said. "We need to get her back to that family, whoever that is."
The new results in Utah make a positive outcome in Ohio much more likely. The strands of hair preserved in Ohio since 1981 are long enough that they preserved a year's worth of growth, providing oxygen isotope values for the last 12 months of Jane Doe's life.
One region stands out like a bull's-eye on the map. It's a rough circle encompassing a region that runs from the Dallas-Ft. Worth area of north Texas into southern Oklahoma.
"That's the only region in the United States that tap water corresponds to those isotope values in her hair," Tipple said.
Although the data suggests Jane Doe was traveling most of her last year, she was in the north Texas region twice, staying there for at least two months each time. That leads to the possibility she once lived in that region or had close ties there.
It's possible the first of her stays in that region was much longer than two months. Evidence of that visit was detected in isotopes at the very end of the strands of her hair, at the point where the hair was trimmed off decades ago. It's possible she'd been living in that area for many months, perhaps years, but the evidence was lost in Jane Doe's last haircut.
The new evidence supports an earlier finding by a different laboratory that studied pollen in the victim's clothing. In the buckskin coat, the analysis found pollen that is characteristic of plants in northern Mexico and the southwestern United States. That area includes north Texas.
The Ohio detectives now plan to work with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to generate publicity in north Texas about the murder case in Ohio. They're hoping that drawings of Jane Doe and the facts of the case may jog the memory of someone who knew her 35 years ago.
"Once we identify her," Hickey said, "then we can possibly look for a suspect who caused her death."
As he stood alongside the road where he made the gruesome discovery as a young farmer more than a third of a century ago, Bridenbaugh said, "You know, it's time for closure. And I believe they're probably going to solve it here pretty soon."