DNA solves Orange County’s oldest cold case, identifying Jane Doe and suspected killer
Fifty-two years after the body of a woman was found near a Huntington Beach farm field, Jane Doe and the man who authorities say beat and raped her and slashed her throat have been identified.
The cold case from 1968 was Orange County’s oldest unsolved homicide. Three boys found the body of a young woman in a drainage ditch near Newland Street and Yorktown Avenue on the afternoon of March 14, 1968.
She was wearing a floral-print blouse, purple pants, loafers and a costume ring with a large blue stone set in a silver band. No one knew who she was, and the only clue to her presumed killer was a cigarette butt found nearby.
The woman, estimated to be in her mid-20s, ultimately was buried in Newport Beach in an unmarked grave. A search for her identity went nowhere.
Now, five decades later, the woman and the man police say killed her have been identified through investigative genetic genealogy — a method increasingly used in recent years to identify long-dead victims and assailants, such as Golden State Killer Joseph James DeAngelo Jr.
It was a killing that haunted Newport Beach for years.
Huntington Beach police detectives say Anita Louise Piteau was the woman in the field. She was 26 when she was killed.
Piteau’s remains have been returned to her surviving family — two sisters, a brother and extended family who remained undeterred in their search for her — and a memorial service in her home state of Maine has been held in her honor, attended by investigators who helped solve the case.
“I am extremely grateful and proud of the extraordinary efforts of the active and retired members of the Huntington Beach Police Department and the Orange County district attorney’s office in their tireless pursuit of justice for Anita and her family,” Huntington Beach Police Chief Rob Handy said.
“The fact they never stopped working this case for more than five decades is a tremendous testament to the two departments and our law enforcement profession. There is nothing more important to a victim and their family to know that law enforcement will never give up.”
Over time, officials had called on the public to assist with the investigation. With the help of technology, details began to emerge about the case.
In 2001, Piteau’s clothes were examined and processed for DNA. Then, in 2010, a partial DNA profile was obtained from the cigarette, which matched DNA obtained from Piteau’s sexual assault kit.
Nine years later, in 2019, detectives working with the Orange County district attorney’s office used investigative genetic genealogy to map out the possible family tree of the killer. From that, officials identified Johnny Chrisco, who died in 2015 of cancer and is buried in Washington state.
“Nothing, not even the death of the killer himself, will deter the pursuit of justice,” Dist. Atty. Todd Spitzer said. “The death of a 26-year-old woman who was left in a farm field, raped, beaten and her neck slashed haunted generations of Huntington Beach police officers who refused to give up on identifying Jane Doe and finding the person who robbed a young woman of a lifetime of memories.”
Even as investigators narrowed their search for the killer, they worked to give a name to the woman who had been slain. In 2011, blood from her blouse produced a partial DNA profile that was entered into the national Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, while her fingerprints were entered into the CAL-ID system and the FBI database.
Detectives, prosecutors and forensic scientists began working earlier this year on a possible family tree for the woman, and with the help of genealogist Colleen Fitzpatrick, and her company Identifinders International, were able to identify Piteau through DNA matches with her family.
A young woman whose body was found in Anaheim 31 years ago was identified this week with the help of volunteers using the same technique that identified the suspected Golden State Killer.
Chrisco was not originally a suspect in the 1968 crime. Investigators said he was discharged from the Army after three years “following a failed psychological exam that diagnosed him with having positive aggressive reaction, which was defined as having a pattern of being quick to anger, easy to feel unjustly treated, chronically resentful, immature and impulsive.”
In 2016, Chrisco was listed as one of six deceased veterans, unclaimed by family or friends, who was honored during a Memorial Day ceremony called “The Unforgotten, Run to Tahoma VII Celebration of Life” in Washington’s Kitsap County.
Investigators aren’t aware of a connection between Piteau and Chrisco. Anyone with information is asked to call the Huntington Beach Police tip line at (714) 375-5066.
Get breaking news, investigations, analysis and more signature journalism from the Los Angeles Times in your inbox.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.