The Case That Haunts

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

There was, for example, the time just months after the murder that a frantic woman appeared at police headquarters claiming to have just met the killer. He lived just a few blocks from the shuttered building. The woman said the man invited her into his apartment and showed her a human skull and a machete.

Minutes later, Burgoon, Riley and Adkins arrived at the apartment with a search warrant and a sledgehammer. They busted down the door and recovered the skull and knife.

"The machete was a novelty piece you could bend a million ways. It could never cut someone's head off," recalls Burgoon. "He got the skull from his high-school teacher in California. It was all verified. He wasn't our guy."

For detective Tom Carroll, the search goes on -- 22 
years later.
Jennifer Silverberg
For detective Tom Carroll, the search goes on -- 22 years later.
The Jane Doe case will be always be the "the one that 
got away," says Joe Burgoon.
Jennifer Silverberg
The Jane Doe case will be always be the "the one that got away," says Joe Burgoon.

Then there was the Charlack police officer who got a skull from a man he had questioned at a storage shed on St. Charles Rock Road. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Danny Davis of Pagedale told the cop he bought the skull for $35 in the late 1970s at a souvenir-gift shop near Northwest Plaza shopping center. Davis said he was told the skull was that of a young Indian woman who had been killed by a tomahawk. A forensic anthropologist determined it was too old to be Jane Doe's skull.

Other leads have been less conventional. Grasping for clues, Burgoon once sat in on a séance in a Maplewood home. Under dim candlelight the detective passed around photocopied fingerprints of Jane Doe to a table full of psychics. As the clairvoyants channeled the spirits, Burgoon sat in the corner and observed.

"The psychics put their hands on the fingerprints and would shoot straight up in their chairs like they got a jolt or something," remembers Burgoon. "At the end of the meeting they told me to call the Coast Guard. The head is on a boat in the Gulf of Mexico."

The séance wouldn't be the last time homicide detectives looked to the paranormal for help. In 1994 Burgoon and Adkins agreed to appear on Sightings,a nationally syndicated television show on the occult and the supernatural.

Connected by phone, the homicide detectives sat in St. Louis with notepads at the ready while a psychic in Florida entered the mind of Jane Doe. Producers filled in the backdrop with Hitchcockian theme music and shadowy, slow-motion footage of children at play. The final product was vague enough to seem eerily real, but it only harmed the investigation.

Prior to the show's taping, detectives mailed the psychic the bloodied sweater and the nylon rope used to bind Jane Doe's hands. They never got them back. The evidence was lost in the mail.

Perhaps the most far-fetched story surrounding the case came in 2002 when Sharon Nolte called detectives. A Kansas City insurance investigator, she was convinced Jane Doe was a Chippewa Indian named Shannon Johnson. Nolte said she also knew the killer, a drifter living in southern Texas.

She worked the case independently for seven years before contacting the police, her investigation taking her to an Indian reservation in Minnesota where she collected sample DNA from a woman she believed to be related to Jane Doe. She says she even visited the killer, inviting herself into his home and collecting DNA evidence in his bathroom.

Nolte has few positive things to say about the St. Louis police department. She claims her story fell on deaf ears -- that Carroll and Burgoon never took her seriously. Of the $23,000 she says she spent on the case, $4,500 went to a private lab that tested the DNA against that of Jane Doe. The tests came back negative, but Nolte still maintains she was right.

"I don't give a rat's ass about the police department. I think they stink," she says. "I told them who she was and who killed her, and they never did anything with it. I had a bag full of the killer's pubic hair. Do you know how difficult it is to collect a bag full of pubic hair?"

As with all the people who have stepped forward to help police solve the case, Carroll and Burgoon say they appreciate Nolte's efforts, but in the end her story just didn't add up.

"You don't want to play anyone cheap," says Burgoon. "In a case as tough as this one, you want to listen to what anyone has to say. What do you have to lose?"

The most recent twist to the case came this past July, when detectives Tom Carroll and Jeff Stone flew to Texas to interview Tommy Lynn Sells. On death row for the brutal murder of a thirteen-year-old girl, Sells claims to have committed dozens of murders across the country, including five in Missouri.

The interview was inconclusive, but Carroll doubts Sells' involvement.

"He'll claim anything. Whatever case you put in front of him he'll say, 'It could be me.'"


Buried within the Web site for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children lies a page devoted to Jane Doe. Of the roughly 1,400 children profiled, she is the only child without a mug shot or artist's rendering. In its place appears the bloodied yellow sweater found on her body, along with information about skin color, weight and age.

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