By Jim Balloch
Sunday, November 29, 2009
Ghostly and angular, the image of the young woman's face has haunted Knox County Sheriff's Office detectives for more than 22 years.
There is a slight, quizzical tilt to her head. Her eyes are level and hard, fixed forever in a wary gaze. Her look is of one who has taken plenty of hard knocks and expects more to come.
In the early morning hours of June 1, 1987, at a North Knox County home, her life ended with a 12-gauge shotgun blast to the head.
"There wasn't any ID on her of any kind," said Sgt. Perry Moyers of KCSO's Cold Case Squad. "Not even a wallet. No clues. There was just nothing."
It is just one of thousands of cases of unidentified bodies from around the country. No one knows for sure how many there are.
The FBI's National Crime Information Center lists 7,212 such cumulative cases, including 62 from Tennessee. But NCIC accepts reports only from law enforcement agencies. Medical examiners, coroners and other sources are excluded.
Researchers and criminologists say the actual number is much higher. A U.S. Justice Department study found an average of 4,400 unidentified human bodies reported each year, of which about 1,000 remain unidentified a year after being found.
"My personal opinion is that the real number is in excess of 60,000," said George Adams, program coordinator for the Center for Human Identification, the world-renowned DNA forensics lab at the University of North Texas. "When I call agencies relative to a case and ask how many unidentified remains they have, the number seems to go up."
Undoubtedly, some of those are of people who have been reported missing, but remain unidentified because police do not have enough clues to connect the body to a missing person case.
"We don't know what proportion of (eventually unidentified remains) were missing persons," said Dr. Kenna Quinet, a professor of criminal justice at Indiana University and Purdue University.
But thousands of missing or lost persons are never reported missing, especially if they are on the margins of society - prostitutes, transients, drug addicts, gay hustlers and mentally ill or homeless persons.
"We cannot expect the police to look for victims whose families never even reported them missing," Quinet said.
Quinet refers to this population as: "the missing missing."
"We don't have a good handle on this situation at all," said Libba Phillips, founder of the Florida-based Outpost For Hope, an organization dedicated to raising public awareness about that category of cases.
"There are just too many cracks in the system for these people to fall through," she said - including an occasional reluctance or refusal by a police agency to accept a missing persons report.
Phillips has coined a term for "missing missing" children and teenagers, including runaways whose indifferent parents or guardians do not bother to report them missing: "kids off the grid."
"They are the most vulnerable of these cases, and the most hidden group of missing or lost children," Phillips said.
Quinet, Adams and others agree that such people are often the victims of serial killers, some of whom delay or avoid arrest by preying on people who are not likely to be missed. Most of "Green River Killer" Gary Leon Ridgway's dozens of victims were street prostitutes.
"I knew they would not be reported missing right away, and might never be," he said after he was caught. "I picked them because I thought I could kill as many as I wanted without getting caught."
There is no mystery about where, why or by whom Knox County's "Jane Doe" was killed.
"We know just about everything about this case - except who she is," Moyers said.
It is a case of a choice she made that landed her in the wrong place, with the wrong people, at the wrong time, Moyers said.
She was picked up hitchhiking in Greene County by two men - either at a rest stop or truck stop, depending on which man is telling the story.
"We don't have any idea where she came from," Moyers said. "It could be anywhere."
The men drove her back to their Jim Sterchi Road residence. "Basically, (the men later) admitted they were going to rob a house," Moyers said.
The targeted house was occupied by a 23-year-old woman who had recently been robbed. And she had a 12-gauge shotgun. A friend was staying with her.
Jane Doe and one of the men went to the porch and created a ruckus, Perry said. It appears they were staging a fight to trick the resident into opening the door. The women inside the house were on the telephone with a 911 dispatcher when the ruckus escalated, with loud banging on the door and threats, Moyers said.
The resident fired a 12-gauge shotgun through the door, killing Jane Doe instantly.
The two men fled but were later arrested. The only clue they offered to Jane Doe's identity, Moyers said, was that "Tina" and "Illinois" came up during their conversations.
"But we don't know the context of that, if it means she was Tina from Illinois, or she was going to Illinois to see a Tina, or something else," Moyers said.
Either way, "Tina" does not match with the amateurish tattoo "BH" on her upper left arm.
KCSO has checked her fingerprints in several criminal and civil databases, with no results.
Jane Doe had a blood-alcohol level of 0.13 percent. She was in her mid-20s, just under 5 feet 5 inches tall and weighed between 100 and 120 pounds. She had brown hair, brown eyes.
She wore an aqua-colored Miami Dolphins jersey number 32, light blue pants, tennis shoes and white socks. There was a silver-colored chain bracelet on her left wrist.
She was missing a lower front tooth. Prior injures, according to the autopsy, suggest normal medical issues or accidents, but not abuse, Moyers said she had a crushed vertebrae that likely caused her back pain; healed fractures of the clavicle and right and left tibia bones, with the left tibia secured by a metal pin; a healed fracture of the fibula, secured by a metal plate manufactured by "Synthes."
A horizontal scar on her abdomen suggests pelvic surgery of some sort, possibly an emergency Caesarean section, said Dr. Randy Pedigo, who was Knox County's medical examiner at the time.
"Those injuries, that medical information, will be far more important in identifying her than the (recreated) image of her face," said forensic anthropologist Dr. Emily Craig of the Kentucky State Medical Examiner's Office.
Craig is a former graduate student at the University of Tennessee Forensic Anthropology Center and had a role in developing the computer enhancement of Jane Doe's face.
"Somebody, somewhere, has probably at least wondered what ever happened to her," said Todd Matthews of the Southeast region of the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs, a new U.S. Justice Department program designed to facilitate the linkage of unidentified remains cases with missing persons reports.
"But the circumstances of this case certainly make her a good candidate to be one of those 'missing missing.'"
"She's somebody's daughter, and she may be somebody's sister or maybe even somebody's mother," Moyers said. "We would like to get her identified and maybe give closure to a family."
Jim Balloch may be reached at 865-342-6315.
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