The Case That Haunts

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

On a recent autumn day, Burgoon pulls his wife's white Ford Explorer up to the grassy lot where the apartment once stood. The city razed the building years ago, but in Burgoon's mind, it's still there, taunting him even now.

Eight years after he left homicide, and nearly a year since retiring from the force at the age of 65, he still can't shake the memory of Jane Doe. Not a week goes by, he says, that he doesn't think of her.

Described by a former colleague as "almost too nice for this dirty business," Burgoon, with his quiet demeanor and nearly photographic memory, landed hundreds of violent criminals in prison during his 27 years on the force, earning him the nickname "Father Homicide." Something about those flickering green eyes, the fidgety way he makes small talk, that embarrassed look on his face when he lights up a Carlton, won Burgoon the empathy of victims' families and suspects alike. He's the kind of guy people want to help.

The crime scene offered few clues. Clockwise from 
above: the vacant buidling; the basement hallway; the 
nylon rope and bloodied sweater.
St. Louis Police Department
The crime scene offered few clues. Clockwise from above: the vacant buidling; the basement hallway; the nylon rope and bloodied sweater.
"It's the most perplexing case I've ever worked," says 
Leroy Adkins.
Jennifer Silverberg
"It's the most perplexing case I've ever worked," says Leroy Adkins.

But with Jane Doe, there was never any family or suspect to coax. Burgoon couldn't work his good-cop magic.

Mary Case, the city's medical examiner at the time of the murder, says the case affected Burgoon more than any other detective. During those months the girl lay in the morgue, the two were in constant contact, investigating any leads that might reveal her identity.

"I'll always associate him with Jane Doe," says Case. "Whenever I see him, it's the first thing I think of, and it's always the first thing we'll discuss."

At six-foot-two and 230 pounds, Captain Leroy Adkins casts an imposing presence. He doesn't scare easily, but for a decade following the ghoulish crime, he was plagued by nightmares. He says he'd awaken in a cold sweat, the investigation spinning wildly in his mind.

"I wonder: Did we miss something? Is there something we should have done but didn't do? Something we missed at the scene? For the life of me, I can't think of anything."

The first African-American head of homicide, Adkins, now 71, was a year on the job at the time of Jane Doe's murder. Wanting to dispel the belief among many of the city's black residents that the police department cared more about white victims than black ones, Adkins immersed himself in the case. He organized meetings in the black community, urging residents to help. He wrote letters to the St. Louis American, Ebony and Jet magazines.

Adkins' tired eyes reflect the frustration and resignation that come from this infuriating case. The nightmares are gone, but harrowing memories linger. Jane Doe, he says, enters his mind when he's reading the paper, watching television, in the quiet-time moments before sleep.

His wife, Glenda, knows the case nearly as well as her husband. For years she's been the sounding board for her husband's unanswered questions.

"There's just so much wonderment in this story," she says. "You wonder how no one can be missing a child of that age. Where is the family? What about her schoolmates? Her friends? How could no one report her as missing?"

Right up until his death in 1996, detective Herb Riley kept his promise to never stop his search for the killer. Given the moniker Herb "Seek and Find" Riley by local crime tabloid The Evening Whirl, the hard-nosed cop was the yin to Burgoon's yang. Playing the part of bad cop, Riley was well known for his ruthless interrogations and his daily four-pack habit of Lucky Strikes. Of the more than 2,000 homicides he worked, Jane Doe was one of only two cases he never cracked.

After retiring in 1986, Riley brought home boxes of his notes and kept in regular contact with Joe Burgoon and other detectives.

"He was constantly talking about it," recalls his son, Jeff Riley. "I remember visiting him at the hospital and asking him if he was happy with his life and what he'd done. He replied that he was, but said he wished he solved the Jane Doe case. He said when he died he would finally know who did it. He believed the afterlife would reveal all life's mysteries."

Hours after finding the girl's mutilated body, Burgoon and Riley sent out all-points bulletins nationwide. When the dispatches yielded nothing, they began checking school attendance records, looking for students no longer on the rolls. Only the St. Louis Public Schools kept computerized attendance records at the time, but even those lists gave no indication as to where a student went after leaving school.

For the most part it was guesswork, with detectives calling as many as a half-dozen school districts before locating a child. For each child eliminated, hundreds more remained to be checked. So mind-numbingly frustrating was the task that detective Wayne Bender was hospitalized for migraines.

Finally, some seven months after the murder, the detectives accounted for every eight- to eleven-year-old black female enrolled in St. Louis city schools and the neighboring districts of University City, Wellston, Ferguson-Florissant and Normandy.

Who was she?

Desperate for something, anything, police have tracked down a score of false leads over the years, some more preposterous than others.

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