Among the unsolved cases stretching back several years that are under investigation by the Kentucky State Police, one of the hardest to crack involves a woman’s body found on the side of Interstate 65, with no identification and scant physical clues to her identity.
The unidentified, partially decomposed body of the woman police refer to as Jane Doe was found by road surveyors near an embankment along the 12-mile marker of the northbound lanes of I-65 in Simpson County in October 2001.
A gold band and a silver ring with a painted enamel blue background with flowers and leaves was found near her body, and an outline of a rose tattoo was on her chest, but police knew little else about the woman.
No clothing was found with the body. Investigators were unable to obtain fingerprints from the body because of decomposition. Several teeth were decayed or missing.
“There was very little to go on at the time,” said Detective Tim Adams of state police Post 3, who is currently handling the investigation into Jane Doe’s death.
Adams said investigators estimated the woman had been dead between a week and six months when her body was found, and that the best estimate would have placed her death some time in August 2001.
Cases involving unidentified remains are among the most difficult for investigators to solve. Post 3 Capt. Lisa Rudzinski said there are eight active unidentified remains and 12 missing persons cases under investigation at the Bowling Green post, which covers eight counties.
In this case and others involving unidentified people, the first priority is to determine who the person was, a task that can stymie investigators confronted with a dearth of physical evidence.
“What goes against us is that a lot of times when these bodies have been found, they’ve been found several months after they were actually killed,” said Detective Chad Winn of Post 3.
Forensic science has been an important tool in giving police a direction in investigations.
State forensic anthropologist Emily Craig did a reconstruction of Jane Doe’s remains that used skeletal structure to determine her identity.
Based on Craig’s work, she helped determine that the unidentified remains were of a white woman between the ages of 25 and 35, about 5 feet 6 inches tall and with reddish-brown, shoulder-length hair.
Adams said several people have called the KSP over the years about the missing person, but analysis of DNA samples and dental records eliminated dozens of possibilities.
The National Missing and Unidentified Persons Data System lists 40 missing women who have been ruled out as being the Jane Doe found in Simpson County.
Consisting of genetic material unique to each individual, DNA evidence has been an effective tool used by law enforcement since the late 1980s to help identify the bodies of missing persons and suspects involved in violent crimes.
For unidentified remains cases, police and forensic analysts turn to mitochondrial DNA, often used to identify badly decomposed remains or decomposed bodies with very small available samples.
Though mitochondrial DNA is unique to each individual, sequences of it are shared between individuals and maternal relatives, and Adams said that mitochondrial DNA analysis typically involves comparing a sample taken from a body to samples taken from that person’s siblings, mother and maternal relatives.
The unidentified remains cases under investigation locally date as far back as the early 1970s, so recent technological developments give current investigators advantages earlier detectives lacked.
“A lot of tests we can run now were in their infancy in the early ’90s,” Winn said. “We’re re-examining evidence and staying in constant contact with the (state) medical examiner’s office.”
Detectives balance cold cases with current criminal investigations, giving priority to the more recent cases.
“I try to more or less keep a log of what’s going on and try to develop new leads and strategies,” Adams said about cold cases. “When nothing’s fresh, you more or less have to start at ground zero and work your way back up. You organize and start developing your own theories and if you think theories developed by previous investigators aren’t viable, you develop your own leads and work off those.”