Unsolved Jane Doe murder case reopened using DNA from rootless hair


Ancient evidence and new technology provide clues to help solve a decades-old cold case where the killer and victim were never identified.

In 1985, a woman, now called Jane Doe, was found shot and killed in the remote wetlands area off Mowry Avenue in Newark. Detectives said two hunters discovered the decomposed and almost unrecognizable body and called the police.

To this day, no one knows her name or who she is.

“Unfortunately, no one knows or knew that Jane Doe existed,” Detective Todd Nobbe said. “There was no identification, no purse found, nothing that would immediately give us a name.”

Nobbe reopened the case a few years ago. While the woman’s body was cremated, Polaroid photos were taken of her skull with a rootless tuft of hair, both of which remained in the evidence file.

This first led the detective to Forensic Medicine of Astrée in Santa Cruz, where scientists now have the ability to break down and extract DNA from even the smallest strands.

Astrea Forensics in Santa Cruz extracted DNA from rootless strands of hair belonging to Jane Doe and collected after her murder in 1985.

They say advanced computers are used to find patterns and sequence DNA. And from there, profiles are built to create a sort of roadmap.

These DNA profiles are then passed on to genealogists who are responsible for trying to link DNA matches to specific people.

Newark Police Department in partnership with a non-profit organization Doe DNA Projectwho constructs and uses this genetic information to identify John and Jane Does.

“Our job is to build their family trees and look for connections between those family trees,” Cairenn Binder said with Doe DNA Project said. “From there, we piece together the family tree to try to find a John or Jane Doe that matches the age and location that we know our Doe is from.”

The volunteers have solved tens cases of unidentified people across the country using genetic genealogy. The same methods were used to find the Golden State Killer, uploading DNA to online tools that help identify common segments of DNA leading to a specific ancestor.

“They helped me figure out who might be our Jane Doe’s moth,” Nobbe said.

However, that potential mother, Marian Marie Richardson, from a small Missouri town near the Kansas border, is no longer living. Interviews with family members did not provide any connection to California. Instead, Nobbe said they pointed to a distant relative in Texas and a woman named Ruth Ellis who may be related to Jane Doe.

Ellis was adopted when she was just a month old, but agreed to provide her DNA. Unlike traditional tests with dozens of DNA markers, genealogists say the new DNA tests contain hundreds of thousands of markers.

“These tests are very, very advanced and can predict relationships much more accurately and much further than a traditional DNA test,” Binder said.

Ellis’ test showed her to be a match and potential half-sister to Jane Doe.

“Of course I didn’t know her and I didn’t know she existed,” Ellis said. “It was…just the weirdest thing. I was amazed. I couldn’t believe it, but it was true because the DNA proved it.”

Investigators said they believe Jane Doe may also have been adopted in the 1940s, like Ellis, which led to her ending up in California. So far, a search of adoption records has come up empty and no one has ever reported her missing.

Jane Doe’s decomposed body was found in 1985 by hunters in a remote swamp area near Mowry Avenue in Newark.

Federal records show Jane Doe is listed as one of 2,800 unidentified missing person cases in California and one of 14,000 unresolved cases at national scale.

Determined, Nobbe fell back on the Polaroid photos of her skull and enlisted the help of forensic imaging specialist Jorge Molina of the Texas Department of Public Safety.

Using these images he created a 3D model of the skull and from there he was able to produce two new computer drawings of what Jane Doe might have looked like in 1985.

“The skull kind of serves as a map for the face,” Molina said. “And that’s really all we’re trying to do is create an image that can trigger recognition from the public.”

Reconstructed image of what Jane Doe might have looked like at the time of her death in 1985, produced by the Texas Department of Public Safety.

Molina had no knowledge of Ellis or his connection to Jane Doe. But when she saw the drawings made by Molina, she was surprised.

“I thought, oh my God, she looks like me when I was younger, much younger,” Ellis said. “She also had a lot of characteristics… a face with a kind of long face and a pointed chin from our birth mother.”

But even with forensic advances, Jane Doe’s real name is still not known. And neither are the circumstances surrounding who murdered her, why and how she ended up in the Newark swamps.

“Once we give her that name, maybe it will lead me to where she worked, who her friends were, who her family was, and who she hung out with,” Nobbe said. “And help me figure out who the killer might have been.”

Any anonymous information or advice related to this homicide cold case can be directed to Newark Police Department at 510-578-4965.

Brooks Jarosz is an investigative reporter for KTVU. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @BrooksKTVU

Reconstructed image of what Jane Doe might have looked like at the time of her death in 1985, produced by the Texas Department of Public Safety.


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