I stumbled upon this case by simply picking up something to read in a laundromat. It was a weekly St. Louis newspaper and inside was a story of a murder so ghastly and horrible, it was burned into my brain. I wrote a fictionalized version of this story in my book The Vanished Child. However, all of these years later, the memory of this case still lingers. It tends to do that to anyone who touches it.
The city of St. Louis is rather notorious for the heat that comes to it during the summer months. During the months of July and August it is not uncommon to find the air temperatures reaching into the triple digits with 100% humidity. However, it is not always that way. During the winter months, the temperatures can drop to blistering levels and the snow can bury the city in feet of snow.
In 1983 the winter was a cold one. During the month of February, snow lined the streets and covered the grassy areas. One the north side of town the cold was helping the buildings rot all the faster. The north side of St. Louis, during that time, was notorious for being a “bad” part of town. Street after street held slowly mouldering and crumbling buildings and houses, like teeth slowly rotting in a diseased jaw.
On that particular cold February morning, two men entered one of those buildings. The crumbling ruin that had once been an apartment building was located just east of the suburban hot spot known as the University City Loop. However, the young college-aged men and women who partied and drank and hung out all night in the Loop did not venture this far east. This was known as a bad part of town. There was nothing left in this part of town save for crumbling ruins such as this building and homes populated with families and residents the “proper” side of town did not wish to associate with.
The entered the building on a mission. One story says that they were looking for copper pipes. Even then, copper was valuable. However, much of anything that was valuable in that building had been picked over and removed. Another story was that one of the two gentleman was having car trouble and they were looking for a pipe that they could use to repair the car. They began their search on the first floor as it was easiest to get into the building that way.
The walls of the building were stained where they still stood. There were huge holes in the walls in other places and the floor was anything but entirely stable. The wood creaked and threatened to give way under the weight of a mouse, much less the two young men currently searching about. They quickly found nothing of interest on the first floor. The basement, however, offered greater possibilities for piping that might be sawed off and taken away.
They headed into the gloom. The smell was awful. Who knew how many small creatures had crawled into this place and died since the building had been abandoned. They were from this neighborhood, however, and used to the smells that came from these buildings. They roamed the back room of the basement, searching the walls and waving away cobwebs as they searched. One of the young men had a lighter that he was using to illuminate the rooms as they searched.
The quickly searched the back room and, again, found nothing. Moving on, they entered the room toward the front of the house. In here, the smell was much worse. Something had definitely died in here and it seemed larger than a mouse or a rat. Maybe it was a dog? The young man flicked on the lighter.
Her sweater must have stood out like a beacon in that gloom. It was bright yellow. The sweater was brand new and still bore the fold-marks from when it had been folded into the package it was purchased in. Of course, she also lay in a pile of debris that partially masked what they were looking it. It must have, to say the least, been very confusing. Any sane mind would have looked at what was lying there and not been able to register what it actually was. Perhaps they both laughed, thinking it was a mannequin or a doll. Perhaps they really had no idea what they were looking at in the flickering flame and the cold wind that sought and found ever nook and cranny and hole in the abandoned building.
They moved closer to be sure what they were looking at. Certainly it could not actually be what their eyes were saying they were looking at. Certainly no one would have dumped such a thing in this crumbling wreck of a building. However, as they got closer, the smell got worse.
Exactly what tipped them off to what they were seeing is unknown. Maybe it was taking a closer look and realizing that was really skin. Maybe it was studying the yellow sweater and the sheer horror of what they saw at the neck. Maybe it was seeing the blood around the collar. Whatever it was, they soon realized that what they were looking at was all too real, all too horrible, and all too ghastly. They ran out of the apartment screaming. Soon, the police were there and soon, a case that would haunt St. Louis for decades was opened.
She was tall for her age. In fact, when officers first arrived at the scene, their first suspicion was that maybe she was a prostitute who had run afoul of one of her Johns. She was naked from the waist down and these seasoned men who had seen more than their share of rapes and murders knew right away that she had been sexually assaulted. However, even these seasoned and hardened men had rarely, if ever, seen anything like this before.
They were proven wrong once the Medical Examiner arrived. It was then that they discovered this was a young girl. She was maybe 7, 8, or 9-years-old. The case took a very sudden and sad turn. This wasn’t just some teenager who had turned to selling her body on the streets for some extra cash. This kind of brutality was not meant for children of that age.
Whoever had killed her had bound her hands behind here. The cord was still there and her hands and wrists bent at an odd angle. She had nail polish on her fingers. Her bare legs and buttocks were bruised and there were several spots where it looked like small animals had been at her. She had been down here for several days, it was determined, both from the bites and from mold that was growing on the wound that was above her shirt collar.
Her head was missing. While a quick search found traces of blood on the walls and floor, and there was blood on the front her her yellow sweater, there was not nearly as much blood as there would have been had she been murdered and decapitated in that basement. This meant that this girl had been bound, abused, assaulted, killed, decapitated and then dragged to the location where she had just been found. Without her head, her height could only be guessed at. Her identity was a mystery. Even her clothes, the yellow sweater, looked new and probably not what she had last been seen in.
Still, this was a missing child. Despite the horrible nature of the crime and the sheer unprecedented brutality that was showing here, these men thought that this case would be relatively easy to solve. Surely, someone would notice that a young girl, one so tall for her age, would have been seen in the neighborhood one day and then gone the next. Surely a family member or a friend would miss her. Someone would step forward once they were able to describe what was left of the body.
The police released what information they had. They estimated her height and gave an idea of her weight. They described her body, telling marks, and even the color of her nail polish. They began canvassing the neighborhood. Police began organizing neighborhood rallies and seminars to discuss the case. All of those involved thought that they would find a lead in this case and solve it.
The first thing had been to try and find her missing head. While this sounds particularly gruesome, it was key to providing this girl with a name. If they could find a name, they could find her family. If they could find her family, they might find some answers. At the very least, they could give this poor girl an identity.
She lay in a cold morgue for a long time. As the days turned into weeks and the weeks into months, she became special to several of these hardened men who had brought so many horrible criminals to justice. These men who had stood face-to-face with murderers and questioned them until they had confessed wanted to find her identity and, more importantly, find her killer.
The police began holding more and more meetings. They reached out to African American publications that had a national reach. The included descriptions of the body of the girl, and everything they had about her. They received tips, but nothing ever paid off. They even got responses from supposed psychics and, with nothing else to go on, spent time investigating those as well. Again, it lead to nothing.
The months turned into years. At some point, the little girl needed to be moved to a grave instead of lying in a morgue. Her funeral was a sad sight. The police who were investigating her crime and the grave diggers were the only ones who attended. A few members of the media were there. At the time, she didn’t have a gravestone. She was buried in a remote section of a cemetery, with no headstone and no name.
A television show offered to help. The show also offered to have a psychic help if the police would send the yellow, blood-stained, sweater. The sweater was sent. The show aired. Then the sweater got lost in the mail and the most vital part of the evidence disappeared.
The hardened men who had taken such an interest in this case grew older. They began to retire. They stared at the file cabinets filled with file folders filled with tips. They searched missing persons reports from cities around the country. All of it lead nowhere. They admitted, to the press, as each subsequent anniversary of the discovery of her body came and went, that they were baffled.
It made no sense, they told the reporters. Surely, someone, somewhere had to be missing this little girl. Someone, somewhere, had to know something. They had to have noticed that, one day, a girl was in the neighborhood and gone the next. She belonged to someone.
Eventually, her story became that of legend in the city of St. Louis. An anonymous donor felt sorry for the poor girl in the untrimmed and wild part of the cemetery and bought her a headstone. It has the year she died, and the date she was found, but no birth date. There is no name on the headstone.
Investigative techniques improved. Suddenly DNA was the rage. Her body was removed from her small grave and samples taken. Again, nothing turned up. However, now they had her DNA on file.
One year, a man was arrested when he was found with a human skull in his possession. He claimed he was just a fan of skulls and had bought it at a mall. The skull was taken and tested. The skull was female, it was thought, and, for a moment, it was thought it might be the skull of Jane Doe. When the skull was examined it was determined that it was too old to belong to Jane Doe. In fact, it was believed to be Native American and that the person had been killed by a blow to the head, perhaps with a tomahawk.
A decade went by. She still had no name. Articles were written in the local press. The case gained new interest. More stories were written. The case remained open. The files were handed down to the next generation of police officers, but she still had no name. Her killer, as far as anyone knew, were still free.
Was it a serial killer? One man, in prison, had killed a young boy and decapitated him. Perhaps he had also done so with Jane Doe? Again, the led was checked and nothing came from it. Other decapitation murders, from around the country, were checked. Again, there were no leads that lead to a suspect or the name. She was still Jane Doe.
The case continued to suck people into its vortex. Those who read about it became obsessed with it. So many wanted, and still want, to find a name for Jane Doe. But she remains a frustrating mystery. She has no name. All that is known of her is the gory and gruesome details of her death.
She had been strangled. There was enough of a stump to her neck and other methods to check and determine that she had not been alive when her head was removed. If there was any kind of silver lining in this story, it was that lone, sad, horrible fact. What kind of terror she had to endure before she was strangled, however, could only be guessed at.
Eventualy, 2003 came and went. It had been twenty years since that cold February morning. The case still haunts the halls of the St. Louis Police Department. The building she had been found in was long ago torn down. The neighborhood, that had been so bad and so rotted away, had begun turning around. New condos and apartments were being built. The city had moved on in many ways. In many ways save for the police files in those file cabinets and, now, on computer drives and disks.
A second generation of police officers retired. More stories were written. More detectives expressed their regret. No matter how many bad people they put in prison, or how many good things they had done, or people they had helped, they all regretted not being able to solve this case. It is the case that haunts. It is the case that seems to never end.
Today, she still lies within a grave in an overgrown part of a cemetery within the boundaries of St. Louis city. She has no name. She has no identity. She was someone’s daughter, grand-daughter, perhaps a sister, a cousin, a friend. She probably laughed and cried and played with friends. She probably played with dolls, or rode her bicycle, or jumped rope. She, probably, did all of the things that a little girl her age should have done. Then, something, someone, horrible entered her life.
The case still haunts. It still remains open. Her name is unknown and her killer or killers, as well. How many have taken her secret with them to their own graves? Is her killer still alive? Is her family still searching for her?
All of that is unknown. Despite the leads, the psychics, and the media coverage, she has never been identified. Her head has never been found. Her name is unknown. Her life is a mystery even though her death is pretty well guessed at and documented. She is Jane Doe and she is St. Louis adopted daughter.