Nameless Murder Victim Is Still ‘Someone’s Daughter’
The death certificate read “Unidentified Woman.” The newspapers christened her “the unfortunate girl.” The card with the red gladioli sent to her funeral was addressed “To Someone’s Daughter.”
Folks never quite knew what to call her, the mystery woman whose battered, nude body was found 50 years ago along a creek in Boulder Canyon. Eventually, she came to be known by the inscription on the small, granite headstone placed at her grave:
“Jane Doe. April 1954. Age about 20 years.”
Back then, this picturesque university town was a much different place, and murder still rare. Jane Doe’s story made headlines across Colorado and beyond, yet no one ever came forward to claim her. So the people of Boulder adopted “someone’s daughter” as their own.
They donated money for a private cemetery plot rather than see her buried in a pauper’s grave. Town florists sent sprays of roses and sweet peas to cover her casket, along with arrangements purchased with donations from strangers. A pastor conducted a nondenominational service, and dozens came in their Sunday best to pay their respects.
Then the murder investigation turned cold, and the nameless victim was all but forgotten.
Half a century later, her remains have been unearthed and her case reopened -- thanks to a curious historian who strolled by her grave and came away haunted by a question: “Who is she?”
Now a new generation is trying to find out, and perhaps solve the biggest mystery of all.
Not just who is Jane Doe. But who killed her?
“Girl Found Slain Near Boulder!” screamed the headline in Denver’s Rocky Mountain News.
It was April 9, 1954, the day before spring break was to begin for the 7,000-plus students at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
The previous evening, two freshmen, their exams done, had driven nine miles west of town to explore Boulder Falls, a popular picnicking spot in the heart of a canyon filled with cottonwood and pine trees.
When they spotted her body, they first thought that it was a mannequin. “We didn’t think it could possibly be a human body,” one of the students would tell a reporter.
Her remains lay on some rocks next to the stream. Her body was blackened and bruised -- the skull fractured, left arm and several ribs broken. The victim was about 5-foot-3 and 100 pounds, 17 to 20 years old, with strawberry blond hair. The coroner estimated that she had been dead up to a week and was probably still alive when she was dumped in the canyon.
That was about all that investigators would learn of their victim.
No clothes were found, and she wore no jewelry. Her face and hands had been so ravaged by animals that her features were unrecognizable and a solid fingerprint was impossible to obtain. She had no cavities to compare against dental charts.
All that was left to distinguish her were three bobby pins and an appendectomy scar.
Reports of missing girls poured in immediately, overwhelming the three-man sheriff’s office.
A mother from Pueblo came to view the body, while letters arrived from such places as Tuttle, Okla.; Excelsior Springs, Mo.; Crooksville, Ohio.
“Am writing you in regards to the unidentified girl....”
“I have a daughter who has been missing since Feb. 13....”
One included a yearbook snapshot of a smiling young woman.
“We got tips from far, far away as well as a lot of local ones. I couldn’t begin to tell you how many, but I guess hundreds would cover it,” said Dock Teegarden, 85, who was an undersheriff in 1954. He spent weeks searching mountain cabins for clues and investigating leads -- to no avail.
The hunt for the killer also proved fruitless. Potential suspects were questioned but found to have no connection to the case. At one point, blood was found in a car with Colorado plates in Oklahoma; the driver admitted killing someone else.
Boulder was on the verge of a population boom, but at the time of the slaying, it was a quiet, close-knit college town, leading investigators to conclude that the victim wasn’t a local -- or surely someone would have known something.
“There was a lot of sympathy, of course,” Teegarden said. “Who was the girl? Why was she up there? A lot of people felt, ‘That could’ve been my daughter.’ ”
And so, when officials announced plans to bury her at Columbia Cemetery in an unmarked pauper’s grave, people came forward with donations -- $1 or $10, offered by a patrolman, a laundry owner, an electrician, the feed store operator and others. The $95 needed for a private plot was quickly raised.
A granite company began work on a headstone, while Howe Mortuary donated the casket and its chapel for a service.
Two weeks after the body was found, about 30 people filled the funeral home’s pews. During the service, at each place where the minister would have said the name of the deceased, he simply paused. The next day, a newspaper photograph showed the crowd of men in suits and women in pillbox hats standing before a flower-strewn casket at the cemetery. The headline read: “Will This Grave Mark an Unsolved Mystery?”
On a sunny morning this past June, a small band of folks gathered at Columbia Cemetery once more.
“Let’s have a moment of silence for Jane Doe,” a sheriff’s lieutenant said before a backhoe scraped away the first clump of earth.
Standing on the grass, Silvia Pettem imagined the day 50 years earlier when another group of Boulder residents had assembled there. “They were burying her; we’re digging her up,” Pettem thought.
“But it was still a group of people who cared and wondered who she was,” she would later remark.
Pettem has wondered more than most.
It was 1996 when she first spotted Jane Doe’s grave. A longtime Boulder historian, Pettem was part of a “Meet the Spirits” cemetery reenactment in which volunteers portray the dearly departed. Her character was a university professor, but it was Jane Doe -- whose headstone she spotted nearby -- who caught her eye.
Although a performer depicted the mystery woman -- “Someone with a little acting flair could get into it,” Pettem said -- the historian found herself returning to the grave, unsatisfied with the made-up life story.
“Who is she?” she wondered.
Three years later, Pettem revived Jane Doe’s tale in a history column that she writes for the Boulder Daily Camera. In the newspaper’s research room, in the “murders” file under “U” for Unidentified, she found a stack of brittle articles from 1954.
Pettem was hooked.
She wondered if Jane Doe could finally be identified -- given scientific advancements in DNA and facial reconstruction. She wrote the FBI to see what it knew of the case; the letter was returned with a note reading, “Too vague.”
But Pettem, who has spent years probing records about Boulder’s past, wasn’t about to stop there. “A relentless sleuth of the highest order” is how the Boulder Weekly describes the 57-year-old grandmother, whose mild manner belies her Nancy Drew instincts.
In 2000, she contacted the Boulder County sheriff’s office, but it no longer had records on the case. Over the next three years, Pettem set about building her own file.
She visited Howe Mortuary before it closed, and found the funeral record for Jane Doe and an envelope still containing cards from those who sent flowers. She contacted newspapers and purchased old photographs of the investigation and funeral. She posted a query on a genealogy website until a friend created a site solely dedicated to Jane.
Finally, in the fall of 2003, Pettem presented her findings to sheriff’s investigators. What were the chances, she asked, of reopening the case and exhuming Jane Doe?
Sheriff Joe Pelle and his detectives were enthusiastic but said they couldn’t justify spending taxpayer money on such a cold case. Pettem came up with a solution. What if, as they had 50 years earlier, the people of Boulder donated the costs?
In February, Pelle held a news conference announcing that his department would reopen the case if enough money could be raised to fund an investigation. Then Pettem spoke, telling the story of Jane Doe and imploring the community to pull together again “for this unknown victim.”
The money flowed in -- donations ranging from $5 to $1,000, totaling more than $3,600 to date.
“I hope you will be successful,” one contributor wrote. “Somewhere a family still wonders where she is.”
The exhumation took two days. A mortician who once worked at Howe supplied the equipment.
Jane Doe’s remains have since been shipped to a lab, where forensic anthropologists recently finished reassembling the skull. Sheriff’s detectives hope that a facial reconstruction expert can now create a sculpture of what Jane Doe might have looked like, so they can circulate a sketch that a long-lost relative or friend might recognize.
Other forensic analysts are working to extract a DNA sample from her remains. The experts are all members of an organization Pettem tracked down earlier this year that does its work pro bono.
The private donations will be saved to pay for DNA tests should detectives find a family member.
But time is running out. Sheriff’s Lt. Phil West stresses that authorities can’t even begin looking for Jane Doe’s killer until they know who she was.
“Any siblings she might have had -- they’re probably in their late 60s or early 70s. If we’re going to make an identification, it’d have to be now,” he said. “This is our last, best chance.”
Pettem understands that all too well. Now and then, she returns to the cemetery where Jane Doe first piqued her interest and stands near her now-empty grave.
What began as curiosity has evolved into a personal cause for Pettem, who can’t fathom losing a loved one and never knowing what became of that person.
“If Jane Doe were my sister or mother,” she once wrote, “I would hope that someone would care enough to research her remains for me.”
She still wonders, “Who is she?” Perhaps she was escaping an abusive husband or boyfriend. Perhaps she was a hitchhiker or a runaway.
Then Pettem imagines something else: the day when Jane Doe might be laid to rest for good. Instead of strangers all around, Pettem pictures an elderly brother or sister, nieces and nephews, or cousins. Some of her Boulder family too.
“I want to be in Iowa or Tennessee or wherever she came from,” the historian said wistfully, “at that burial.”
And wherever that place is, Pettem envisions a new headstone to mark it.
One with Jane Doe’s real name.
On the Web: www.boulderjanedoe.com