Champaign County Sheriff’s Investigator Dwayne Roelfs holds the massive file compiled on Jane Doe, whose remains were found in May 1995 southwest of Thomasboro. The detective is hoping new developments in science can lead to her being identified.
URBANA — It’s been 24 years since a man who was about to spray some weeds in a farm ditch southwest of Thomasboro found a human bone and clothing, which led to the discovery of almost an entire female skeleton.
In all that time, local authorities have been unable to identify her. But given advances in science, Champaign County Coroner Duane Northrup now knows that Jane Doe is from the Midwest.
“We never knew that before,” Northrup said Wednesday. “We are fairly hopeful we are going to get her identified in the not-too-distant future.”
While that may not sound all that promising to the untrained observer, it is huge to Northrup and Champaign County sheriff’s investigator Dwayne Roelfs, who have worked together for years to identify the remains found on May 1, 1995, in a farm field on County Road 2400 N between 1200 E and 1300 E in the southeast corner of Condit Township, about two miles southwest of Thomasboro.
They presented updated information on the woman to reporters Wednesday in hopes that it will spread and they can learn who she is. Knowing that is the first step in learning who killed her, either by blunt-force trauma or multiple gunshots, information they’ve known for years. They are not sure if she died in the field or was put there after her violent death.
Dynamic investigation Northrup has been coroner since 2004 and worked part-time as a deputy coroner for three years prior to that. Jane Doe is the only unidentified person among his office’s case files in all that time.
Roelfs, who was a road deputy in 1995, inherited the case in 2004 from the late Lynn Boise, who worked on it almost a decade before he retired.
Boise died earlier this year, still not knowing her name, but being kept up to speed by Roelfs on new developments.
The latest development, one of many in the last two years, involved the testing of isotopes taken from her remains, a relatively recent procedure.
“Isotopes can be absorbed from the food you eat, the water you drink, the air you breathe,” Northrup said.
He explained that depending on where the isotopes are found in the body, it can suggest how long a person was in a certain region of the country and when. Based on what analysts came up with from isotopes taken from Jane Doe’s tooth enamel, they believe she was “most likely” born in Urbana; southeastern Illinois; Nashville, Tenn.; Springfield, Mo.; or the area north of Topeka, Kan.
From isotopes developed from her rib, they believe the last areas where she may have lived long-term are northern Arkansas; Huntsville, Ala. (northern Alabama); Springfield, Mo. (southwestern Missouri); or Topeka, Kan. (eastern Kansas).
“She definitely seems to be in the Midwest primarily,” Northrup said. “We do not believe she had been living in Illinois in the five years prior to her death.”
Besides Northrup and Roelfs, the case has had major assistance through the years from two forensic anthropologists and one forensic odontologist. The analyses of both her skeleton and her teeth have been updated in the last two years.
A drawing of what the woman’s face may have looked like was also updated, appearing much more lifelike than earlier renditions.
Northrup said Jane Doe’s jawbone and teeth, which were substantially intact, revealed she never had any major restorative teeth work, but there was damage or substantial staining to a lower left tooth. That damage could have been present before her death or happened after.
Northrup is hoping that if she had the defect while living, someone might have noticed. The odontologist estimated her age, based on her teeth, at between 16 and 25.
Other experts who built on earlier facial reconstructions and skeletal analyses now believe that she was white and primarily of European or possibly Hispanic descent, between 18 and 29 years old, and between 5-foot-1 and 5-foot-9.
She also had overextended forearms on both sides, a condition she may not have been aware of but that family members could have, had she been medically diagnosed, Northrup said.
Linda Klepinger, a University of Illinois forensic anthropologist involved when Jane Doe’s remains were first found, opined that she may have been a gymnast, ballerina, dancer, figure skater or some other athlete based on the structure of her leg bones, and that she may have given birth.
The more recent analysis couldn’t confirm those opinions based on today’s methodologies, Northrup said.
National database help
Roelfs said that at one time, he had a spreadsheet with as many as 300 names of missing women on it that he believed could have been Jane Doe.
In 2009, all the information he and Northrup have about the remains was put into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System database. Using its ability to automatically cross-check DNA to known missing people, Roelfs has been able to whittle his list down.
“A lot of those names have been eliminated,” he said.
Given the regions of the country where the isotopes suggest Jane Doe may have lived long-term, Roelfs has developed a list of several school districts in those states to which he’d like to send her updated composite.
His thinking is that a teacher or fellow student might recognize her since the isotopes suggest areas where she may have lived some five years before her death, a time when she could have been in high school.
Genetic genealogy In addition to the new information based on the isotope analysis, Northrup said his office is also awaiting results from specialists in genetic genealogy in hopes that
that method could lead authorities to relatives of Jane Doe.
It was that relatively new science — combining DNA identification with genealogy links derived from public records — that led sheriff’s investigators to Michael Henslick, the man accused of the November 2009 murder of Holly Cassano, 22, of Mahomet. Henslick has been in jail more than a year waiting for trial.
Investigators said he admitted to them that he killed the woman who lived in his own neighborhood.
Roelfs has also been involved in that investigation for years.