The Case That Haunts

The most notorious cold case in the history of the St. Louis Police Department still haunts homicide detectives

On a mild winter day in February 1983, two men rummaged through the basement of a vacant apartment building at 5635 Clemens Avenue in northwest St. Louis. Their purpose, they would later tell police, was to find a metal pipe they could use to fix their broken-down jalopy.

After searching the main floor, the men crept downstairs into the basement. Blinded by the darkness, one of the men flicked a cigarette lighter. The horror revealed by the flame sent them running for the police.

Facedown amid the boiler-room rubble lay the headless body of an African-American female. Naked from the waist down, she wore only a yellow V-neck sweater fitted loosely around her torso. Fingers flecked with chipped crimson-red nail polish, her hands were bound behind her back with a strand of red-and-white nylon rope. Between her shoulders, where her neck used to be, there was only a hack-sawed hole.

David Hollenbach

Jennifer Silverberg

When St. Louis homicide detectives Joe Burgoon and Herb Riley arrived, the building was teeming with police. Awaiting crime-scene technicians, the two veteran detectives speculated on the corpse's identity. Maybe, they guessed, she was a prostitute or drug addict from nearby Cabanne Courts, a housing project with a murderous past. It wasn't until technicians at last rolled the body over that they realized she was not a woman, but a pre-pubescent child. Instantly, the mood in that damp cellar turned from morbid curiosity to disgust. A child-killer.

At the time, the FBI called it the only decapitation in the nation involving someone so young.

As police officers searched a sixteen-block area for the girl's head, Burgoon and Riley returned to headquarters to check missing-persons reports. Surely, they thought, the girl's parents or relatives -- someone -- would call to report her missing. With any luck, they'd establish her identity that night and draw up a list of suspects.

The body went unclaimed on a slab in the city morgue for more than a week before it was given the name Jane Doe. For nine months she lay frozen. Finally, on a glum, rainy day in December 1983, she was buried in a pauper's grave in an historic black graveyard in north St. Louis county. At the funeral were a few homicide detectives, the chief medical examiner, and a half-dozen news reporters. Four muddy gravediggers served as pallbearers.

As he was leaving, Herb Riley told a reporter, "I've been involved with her since the day she was found, and I'll be damned if I'm going to stop looking for her killer."

The day of the grisly discovery, February 28, still casts a pall over the homicide department. For years detective Burgoon commemorated that day by sending out teletype bulletins to police departments in all 50 states. No one ever responded. After a dozen years, he was told the mass dispatches were too costly to continue. Today homicide detectives observe the occasion in hushed tones of remorse.

Never a suspect, never an arrest, and never was the head found. Most of what is known of Jane Doe came within days of her discovery. She was likely between the ages of eight and eleven. She was big for her age, around four-foot-ten. Without the head, she measured just over four feet. She had been raped and then strangled. Based on the lack of blood at the crime scene, police believe she was dumped in the basement after her beheading. Mold growing from the wound on her neck indicated she was there for several days before the two men found her.

Little else is known about the girl who has become the most notorious cold case in the nearly 200-year history of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department. Thousands of futile police hours have been spent. The cops who first worked the investigation have retired or died of old age. A new generation of homicide detectives are still at work on the case, hoping DNA technology will spark even the slightest clue. They say they're nowhere near giving up, but the odds are stacked against them.

"Without your victim's identify, you don't know who the killer could be," says Mary Fran Ernst, director of forensic education at Saint Louis University Medical School. "The entire world is your stage."

In his mind, Joe Burgoon can still see the building where they found the girl. It is three stories high, brick, with the Latin word for home, Domi, inscribed in stone above the doorway. Traces of blood streak the cellar walls where the killer dragged the body into the darkness. There's no smell of death. The coolness of the basement preserved the body.

Located about a mile east of the University City Loop, the neighborhood is undergoing a subtle transition, giving rise to new homes priced at $250,000 and up.

But even the most progressive revitalization efforts can do little to mask its violent history.

It's in this same neighborhood that in 1972 police found a woman with her face peeled from her head. In 2001 a ten-year-old boy was mauled to death by a pack of stray dogs in nearby Ivory Perry Park. Last month police found a man with his throat slashed just some 200 yards from the building that contained Jane Doe. For all its mayhem, homicide detectives still associate the neighborhood with the beheading.

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