30 years later, unsolved case of young 'Jane Doe' still haunts police | St. Louis Public Radio

30 years later, unsolved case of young 'Jane Doe' still haunts police

Mar 4, 2013

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: On the 30th anniversary of one of the most baffling, horrendous and bizarre crimes in the history of the St. Louis Police Department, the case has taken on a new sordid detail.

The grave of the unidentified, headless girl who was murdered in 1983 can't be found in the abandoned, derelict Washington Park Cemetery near Interstate 70 and Lambert Airport.

"We want to exhume the body for a bone sample that could possibly help in getting the girl identified," said Joe Burgoon, a retired St. Louis homicide detective who was the primary investigator for years on the mysterious "Jane Doe" case.

"We also want to move her to another cemetery and give her a proper burial," added Burgoon, who now works part-time trying to solve cold cases for the St. Louis County Police Department.

The bone sample would be sent to North Texas State University, which has an advanced DNA testing program that can match results to the data base of the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, a resource center operated by the U.S. Justice Department.

But Burgoon told the Beacon that he was unable to find the grave when he recently went to the overgrown, neglected cemetery full of toppled tombstones and missing markers.

"The cemetery is a mess, but it's there somewhere and I'm confident we'll find it," he said.

What's a little more time to a case that has gone unsolved for 30 years?

Girl in a yellow sweater

On Feb. 28, 1983, two men were rummaging through a vacant apartment building at 5635 Clemens Ave. in the city's West End Cabanne neighborhood, looking for a piece of metal to fix their car's timing chain.  In the basement furnace room, they discovered the body of a young girl.

She was clad only in a dirty, yellow long-sleeved sweater.  Her hands were tied behind her back with red and white nylon rope, like that used to moor small boats.

And her head was missing.

"Back then I thought this would be an easy case to crack," recalled Burgoon, one of the city's first homicide detectives at the scene.  "We'd find out who the girl was and that would lead us to the killer."

But police have never found out the identity of little Jane Doe.

The African-American girl was estimated to be 8-11 years old.  She was well nourished and without sign of any previous abuse.

An autopsy revealed she had been sexually assaulted and strangled before she was decapitated, probably with a large serrated knife.  Because there was little blood at the scene, police speculate she had been killed elsewhere and dumped in the basement a few days before the discovery.

The building on Clemens has since been razed.

Police canvassed 16 square blocks around the crime scene, searching sewers and trash cans for the head or any other clue but found nothing useful.  The head has never been found.

Leroy Adkins, a retired lieutenant colonel with the St. Louis Police Department, talked about the case with the Beacon last week on the 30th anniversary of the discovery.

Adkins said his memory at age 79 is not what it used to be, but he doesn't think he'll ever forget about Jane Doe.

"She's never been identified -- that's what bothers me the most," said Adkins, who was the commander of the homicide division when the case began.

"It's unimaginable to me that a kid can come up missing and no one knows a thing.  You have a child -- 8, 9, 10 years old -- and there's no relatives, parents, neighbors, schoolmates or friends who report her missing.

"What's most distressing," he added, "is how a child that age can't belong to anybody.  It's frustrating.  It's unbelievable."

Adkins said the case haunted him for years and gave him nightmares.  In interviews years ago, Adkins acknowledged that as the city's first African-American homicide commander he wanted to show the black community that police cared as much about black victims as white victims.

But Adkins just last week confided: "Besides finding out who she was, the other thing that really bothered me was, 'Did we do everything we could in our investigation?  Did we miss something?'"

Twists and turns in investigation

The investigation was intensive and exhaustive.

Burgoon and other detectives scrutinized enrollment and attendance records in the St. Louis public schools and those of surrounding school districts.

The investigation went nationwide as every law enforcement agency in the country was notified. Missing persons reports from across the nation were checked out.  Adkins took out ads in every black newspaper and magazine in the country.

Burgoon sought help from an FBI unit that operates a national data base for unsolved killings. "They didn't have a single case similar to ours," Burgoon said.

There were many theories. Maybe the victim lived a secluded life. Or her mother was in jail or dead.  Or perhaps the mother or parents were involved in the murder.

Nothing during the investigation ever panned out into a solid lead.  There is no DNA evidence that could identify the killer.  There has never been an arrest in the case.

There were, however, many quirks, twists and promising leads that evaporated over the years.  A few of them:

  • An abduction case from Chicago involving a young girl.
  • The recovery of a human skull at a storage rental shed on St. Charles Rock Road.
  • A mental patient convicted of beheading a woman in Alabama and suspected of beheading two women in East St. Louis.
  • The strange tale of a Kansas City insurance investigator who was convinced that Jane Doe was a Chippewa Indian who had relatives in Minnesota; she also said she knew the identity of the killer, a drifter in Texas.
  • A serial killer on death row in Texas; he had murdered a 13-year-old girl and claimed to have committed many other murders across the country including several in Missouri.
  • The case of "Precious Doe," a young unidentified girl found decapitated in Kansas City; the girl was later identified and her mother and the mother's boyfriend were convicted of murderlng the 3-year-old.
  • Burgoon even sat in on a seance in Maplewood, and detectives worked with a psychic in Florida who wanted to touch Jane Doe's yellow sweater.  Police sent the psychic the sweater but it was never returned; the psychic said it must have gotten lost in the mail.

Perhaps the most promising lead in the case is one that has not been discounted, but may never materialize because the suspect is dead.

In 2005, St. Louis homicide detective Tom Carroll went to the state prison at Bonne Terre to visit a man on Death Row. Carroll said he hoped and prayed that a twice-condemned killer would confess to the Jane Doe case before his execution by the state.

Vernon Brown was facing execution for strangling 9-year-old Janet Perkins in St. Louis in 1986.  He also was under a separate death sentence for killing Synetta Ford, 19, in St. Louis in 1985; her head was nearly severed with a large knife.

In addition, Brown was charged in Indiana was the killing of a 9-year-old girl in 1980; she was tied, beaten, sexually assaulted and strangled.

"Personally, I believe he did it," Carroll said of Brown at the time.

"It was his style, tying up little girls," Carroll had said.  "How many child killers are there?"

Carroll's theory was that Jane Doe was the daughter of one of Brown's wives or girlfriends.

But Brown refused to talk to Carroll.  "He was very cold.  He was devoid of emotion," Carroll said at the time. After calmly watching the movie "Platoon" in his prison cell, Brown was given a lethal injection on May 18, 2005.

Carroll became very involved in the Jane Doe case and spent many years searching for leads through the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children data base.

After nine months in the "cold room" at the St. Louis Medical Examiner's office, Jane Doe's remains were buried in a white coffin in a pauper's grave at Washington Park Cemetery in December, 1983.

Four gravediggers in muddy overalls were pallbearers for the 5-minute funeral service.

"We are gathered here to send the body of a girl we do not know," said the Rev. John W. Heyward Jr. of the Union Memorial United Methodist Church in St. Louis.

"But we feel surely she is known to God."