It’s 1971, and as a father and son drive down the Redwood Highway in Oregon, they decide to pull over and get some rest. But when the sun rises, the pair make a horrifying discovery: the skeletal remains of a teenage girl lying in the nearby woods. And, in fact, it will take investigators nearly five decades to figure out who that young woman had once been.
Since the days of Ancient Rome, courts have given labels to hypothetical or unidentified players in a court case. Back then, lawyers used the names “Numerius Negidius” and “Aulas Agerius.” After that, in as early as the 14th century the English began giving an unidentified plaintiff or defendant the more personalized moniker of “John Doe.” However, no one’s quite sure where John Doe – or Jane Doe, the female equivalent – first came from.
Nowadays, however, John and Jane Doe have more somber usages – at least when it comes to law enforcement in the United States. Authorities use one of said monikers in order to hide a victim’s true identity, for instance, or when they discover the remains of a person whose name is unknown.
Fortunately, technology has at least come a long way in helping investigators to solve cases. Huge databases now gather fingerprints and DNA so that law enforcement officers can quickly identify suspects and victims alike. This information also helps investigators to link together similar crimes and pinpoint trends or sprees.
What’s more, detectives can combine this improved DNA technology with a relatively new phenomenon: public genealogy databases. Many people nowadays willingly submit their own DNA samples to learn more about their respective family histories and to trace their roots back to countries far away. But investigators can use this information to their advantages, too.
For one thing, law enforcement has utilized public DNA databases to help piece together the missing pieces of cold cases. And that method seemingly proved invaluable when it came to the investigation into the Golden State Killer. Between 1974 and 1986, a mystery man got away with a slew of crimes that ranged from burglaries and stalkings to gruesome rapes and murders.
The serial killer threw police off his scent, however, by moving from city to city in California and embarking on horrific crime sprees across Irvine, Sacramento, Santa Clara, Dana Point and Goleta. And while investigators initially believed that multiple perpetrators were responsible for these hundreds of heinous acts, they were all eventually tied to one individual. Still, without sufficient genetic evidence, the cops couldn’t crack the case.
More than four decades later, however, detectives still hadn’t given up on finding the Golden State Killer. And, ultimately, they realized that they had a new resource at their disposal, too: online genealogy databases. So, experts compared the DNA that had been collected from crime scenes back in the ’70s and ’80s to strands contained within a virtual collection of samples – and they actually got a hit.
However, the DNA match was not a perfect one. Investigators had in fact found genetic samples related to their suspect – but not belonging to the individual himself. So, they did some research into the family from which the DNA samples had come. Then the team narrowed down their pool of likely suspects by age and residence at the time of the crimes.
And in the process, it was discovered that one family member, Joseph James DeAngelo, had lived in Sacramento when the attacks had begun there in the 1970s. To further explore this potential lead, then, police had to gather a DNA sample from DeAngelo and compare it to evidence from the crime scenes that they had on file. Authorities therefore trailed their suspect and collected samples – presumably hairs or skin cells – that he had unwittingly left behind in public spaces.
Then, finally, police confirmed a match between DeAngelo’s DNA and the genetic evidence at the Golden State Killer crime scenes. The investigators tested more DNA samples, though – just to be certain – before taking the suspect into custody on April 24, 2018. And authorities subsequently charged DeAngelo with 13 murders, decades after they had occurred. Unfortunately, though, when it came to other crimes – including rapes and burglaries – the statute of limitations for each had since passed.
If the Golden State Killer case is anything to go by, then, technology has clearly been a boon for law enforcement when it comes to catching alleged criminals. That said, similar advancements have also been used to identify victims and provide peace for the families of unknown deceased or missing people. And the remarkable case of Jane “Annie” Doe is just one example of how police have worked tirelessly to figure out exactly who a victim is – even decades after their death.
It all started on August 18, 1971, when a dad was traveling with his son along the Oregon portion of the Redwood Highway. Said road is 80 miles long and winds through the Beaver State all the way to northern California. And at some point along their journey in Josephine County, the pair decided to pull over to the side of the route and rest for the night.
Then when the father and son woke up the following morning, they took a walk in a nearby forest. After all, as the highway’s name suggests, the area is famed for its towering redwood trees. It was in these woods, however, that the pair stumbled upon a terrifying sight: the skeletal remains of a girl.
And when authorities subsequently examined the scene – part of a known dumping area near the Oregon-California border – they found some of the deceased girl’s personal effects. She had 38 cents and a map of nearby campgrounds in her pocket as well as an intricate, mother of pearl-faced ring that had been etched with the letters “AL.”
Next, Josephine County, Oregon, investigators got to work trying to figure out who this victim was, what had happened to her and how her body had ended up in the woods alongside the highway. The police had few clues to go on, however, and so the case went cold. Indeed, the authorities could only identify their victim as “Jane Doe – Josephine County 71-940.”
More than 30 years later, however, Josephine County investigators opened up Jane Doe’s file once again. And thanks to subsequent scientific advancements, there may yet have been hope that the girl would ultimately be identified. With the help of forensic artists, for instance, law enforcement agencies countrywide are now able to build up pictures of both suspects and victims. What’s more, these images can help in both apprehending criminals and identifying remains.
Sketch artists work in a variety of different mediums, too. Some experts use the traditional paper-and-pencil method to convey a subject’s physical characteristics; others, meanwhile, rely on computers to give a face to a person’s decomposed remains. But in the case of Josephine County’s Jane Doe, forensic artist Joyce Nagy chose clay to create a picture of what the victim may have looked like.
And Nagy referred to Jane Doe’s skeletal remains to fashion a facial reconstruction out of clay. At the end of the project, moreover, the artist gave the unidentified girl a new name. According to Nagy, the visage that she had created felt as though it belonged to an Annie more than a Jane – and so the victim was dubbed “Jane Annie Doe.” Then, with a clear image of the girl’s face completed, police shared the picture across the United States.
Initially, Jane Annie Doe’s likeness created a lot of buzz, and leads flooded into the Josephine County Sheriff’s Department. But while these tips kept the case active for years, none of them led to any solid breakthroughs. And so the teenage girl’s identity remained hidden – until DNA testing pushed her case forward once again.
In late 2016 – 45 years after Jane Annie Doe’s remains had first been discovered – investigators called for a forensic examination of her teeth, bones and hair. You see, different bodies contain the most minor of fluctuations in nucleus matter. And these varied versions of everything from carbon and sulfur to hydrogen are called isotopes.
Initially, the food industry relied most heavily on isotopes. That’s because experts are able to investigate these chemical variants in order to prove that particular products contain the ingredients that they promise or that they are from certain countries or regions. Yet isotopes are also useful in the field of forensics. Thanks to the varied nuclei within a person’s body, you see, a scientist may be able to determine where in the world an individual comes from.
For instance, after an unidentified man in Wales died in hospital after being attacked with a knife and battered, police used fingerprints to identify the individual. And yet authorities had no idea how the mystery man had arrived in the United Kingdom; at the very least, there was no record of his passage through border control. As a consequence, then, law enforcement ordered an isotope analysis of the man’s hair.
During the process, moreover, scientists uncovered oxygen-18, nitrogen-15, hydrogen-2 and carbon-13 isotopes, which built a timeline of the man’s life. Based on the hydrogen and oxygen, experts determined that the individual had lived in Britain for less than a quarter of a year. Before that, he had resided in either Poland or the Ukraine as well as in Germany or the Czech Republic.
Armed with the knowledge from the isotopes, then, investigators headed to Germany. And there they found a criminal record for the man who had died in Wales. Authorities put the pieces together and determined that the man had originally hailed from Vietnam and had been smuggled into the U.K., where he had been forced to repay his debts by farming cannabis before being bludgeoned to death.
Clearly, then, isotope analysis can be the spark that investigators need to solve a case. And when Jane Annie Doe’s DNA underwent the same treatment in 2016, some vital clues did emerge. For one thing, experts determined that the teenager had likely come from the northeastern part of America before moving to the Pacific Northwest, where her body had been uncovered.
Once again, then, police publicized these newfound details – accompanied by a brand-new drawing of Jane Annie Doe – in the press. And as a result, investigators fielded another string of leads – some of which seemed genuinely promising. Jane Annie Doe looked remarkably like a missing girl in Massachusetts, for instance. However, the DNA did not match.
Then, in February 2017, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children stepped in to finance a further examination of Jane Annie Doe’s case through a group called the DNA Doe Project. The non-profit compares cold-case DNA to the genetic information within public genealogy databases, with the hope being that this process will ultimately generate new information or leads.
The DNA Doe Project itself, meanwhile, is helmed by scientist Dr. Colleen Fitzpatrick, who – according to the initiative’s website – “is widely recognized as the founder of modern forensic genealogy.” And she and her team had enjoyed success prior to taking on the case of Jane Annie Doe. For example, the DNA Doe Project once identified a Jane Doe in just four hours – after she’d been nameless for nearly four decades.
The DNA Doe Project team therefore spent several weeks analyzing Jane Annie Doe’s DNA. Owing to the fact that the girl’s genetic material had deteriorated significantly over time, the task was difficult. And in turn, the decayed state of the DNA made it harder to pair Jane Annie Doe with potential relatives in the genealogical database. Nevertheless, researchers did still manage to pinpoint where the girl may have originally come from.
The Josephine County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement, “After weeks of careful analysis and painstaking ancestral research, Jane Annie Doe’s family was traced to relatives in England, New Zealand and Canada.” But that wasn’t the last hit that they’d get on the girl’s DNA. In fact, the next clue would finally crack the case.
In February of 2019, you see, the DNA Doe Project researchers found an even more telling lead than Jane Annie Doe’s heritage. Incredibly, they discovered a link to a potential sibling in Washington state. And so the police contacted a woman named Virginia – who, with a positive match, would be Jane Annie Doe’s sister.
All investigators needed, then, was DNA from Virginia to confirm their suspicions. And, remarkably, the subsequent comparison of Virginia’s genetic material with that of Jane Annie Doe did indeed provide a match. Finally, then, police could identify the young girl whose body had been found on the side of the Redwood Highway more than 47 years previously. Her name was Anne Marie Lehman, and she had been just 16 when she had disappeared.
Lehman had grown up in southwestern Washington state, where she had lived for the most part in the city of Aberdeen. And investigators believe that the teen had disappeared in the winter or spring of 1971 – many months before her corpse had been found. Plus, in an astonishing coincidence, Lehman’s family often called her by her nickname, Annie – just as forensic artist Nagy had named the clay reconstruction of her face. The girl’s initials, AL, also matched the engraved ring found with her body.
However, even with Lehman’s identity finally revealed, investigators still had work to do. They knew neither why she had disappeared nor how she had died, after all. In a quest to uncover the truth, then, Josephine County detective Ken Selig traveled to meet with Virginia. And he reached out to former friends and classmates of Lehman’s who may have known what had happened during the days before her disappearance.
Then in February 2019 Selig revealed his findings to The Daily World. From the tales that he had heard about Lehman’s life, the detective determined that she hadn’t had a picture-perfect childhood. On the contrary, he explained, her home life had been troubled, with her father suffering from an alcohol addiction. And Selig also divulged that Virginia had returned home one day to find her sister packing her things and preparing to leave.
But the plot thickens. In Virginia’s memory, a slightly older woman had been present while Lehman was gathering her belongings. And when Virginia had inquired where her sister was headed, Lehman had reportedly said, “With her.” Yet the story becomes even more ominous after that. You see, Virginia claimed that a relative had later found the woman with whom Lehman had left home that day. That individual had supposedly gone on to say that the 16-year-old had been caught up in the sex trade and was perhaps in San Francisco.
As a consequence, then, the Josephine County Sheriff’s Office went on to explore several different possibilities regarding what exactly had happened to Lehman. Investigators told ABC News in March 2019, for instance, “Some say [Lehman] was a runaway, and others feel she was abducted and traded into a criminal human trafficking organization. These claims, how she ended up in Josephine County and the cause and manner of her death remain under investigation.”
Sadly, then Lehman’s mysterious case remains unsolved, and police still seek answers. And anyone with information about her life in 1970 or 1971 is urged to contact Detective Selig. But in spite of the many questions that still linger, Josephine County Sheriff’s Department has extended its gratitude to everyone who has helped along the way – as well as to the remarkable modern technology that had provided crucial clues.
“Forensic genetic genealogy is fast becoming the most powerful new tool for solving cold cases that have resisted all other approaches,” Josephine County Sheriff’s Office told ABC News. “Without the DNA Doe Project orchestrating the effort to bring Annie Marie Lehman home, it may well have taken another 47 years before [she was] identified and reunited with her family.”