The Case That Haunts

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

It is on this Web site, and a handful of other databases devoted to missing children, that detective Tom Carroll continues to search for Jane Doe's identity. Police long ago abandoned the hopes of finding her head. Even if they were to find it, it would be nothing more than a skull, perhaps providing the girl's dental records, but little else.

It is in the ethereal world of the Internet that Carroll digs for clues. In six years of scrolling through thousands of profiles, he's identified a dozen missing girls who perhaps match the description of Jane Doe.

Carroll, 40, is the latest detective to head up the case from inside a department whose interior is little changed since the days of the girl's vicious death. Detectives are outfitted with the bare minimum: a desk, phone, filing cabinet. Fluorescent lights, a worn linoleum floor and half-finished coffee cups complete the scene. Save for the width of the cops' neckties, it might be the stage set for the 1970s sitcom Barney Miller.

David Hollenbach

Jennifer Silverberg

Once Carroll comes across a possible match, he contacts the child's parents. Each phone call is another stab in the dark.

"It's to the point you really are walking on eggshells when you're calling these people," says the soft-spoken Carroll, who works the Jane Doe murder whenever he has a free hour or two. "People will let time heal a lot of things, and do you really want to gash that back open?"

The conversations are more or less the same. Carroll identifies himself and prefaces the discussion by saying he's not calling to report good news. He tells them St. Louis police have a deceased black female they can't identify. He then describes Jane Doe as best he can. Inevitably the strangers on the other end of the line begin quizzing him, wanting to know what color hair the victim had. What color were her eyes? Doesn't he have dental records?

After a while Carroll is forced to show his hand. He tells them the little girl's head was never discovered. That revelation comes followed by a long pause, but most parents of missing children sympathize with the cop. After so many years, they're looking for any answer, good or bad.

Eleven of the twelve families have provided DNA samples, all of which have ruled out any connection with their missing child. When one couple declined to help, Carroll enlisted local police to search their trash for hair follicles, fingernail clippings or anything that might provide a DNA sample to run against Jane Doe.

Twenty years ago DNA-typing was the fodder of fantasy novels. Today evidence as to the identity of her killer is virtually non-existent. A white substance found on her stomach was initially believed to be semen, but further tests showed it contained no DNA. A pubic hair found on her leg failed to provide enough DNA to identify a killer, but Carroll and others have a theory on the origins of the hair -- it fell off one of the cops at the crime scene.

"I'd lay money down that it came from one of us," Carroll says.

While DNA technology has so far failed to unravel the Jane Doe puzzle, it has helped St. Louis police crack several other cold cases. Just last month a grand jury indicted Danny Ray Kittrell in the grisly killing of a woman stabbed more than 50 times with a screwdriver in 1983. Last year police charged Vester Herrod with first-degree murder and rape in the killing of two women in the early 1990s. In both cases, DNA obtained from the suspects' semen led to arrests.

Owing in part to the success of those cases, the St. Louis Police Department recently received a $150,000 grant from the United States Department of Justice that will pay detectives overtime to pore over cold cases and check if DNA technology might help unlock those unsolved murders.

The grant is unlikely to solve the case of Jane Doe.

"Everything we could do for her has already been done," says Mary Beth Karr, DNA technical leader for the police department.

Working in tandem with Carroll, Karr has eliminated all but one of the potential Jane Doe matches the detective has brought her over the years. The remaining sample awaits advanced testing with the FBI, but Karr doesn't hold out much hope.

"I'd be shocked if it were a match."

Still, she remains optimistic DNA will one day unlock the case. Jane Doe's genetic profile currently resides in the FBI's Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, a massive database that continually attempts to match DNA material found at crime scenes.

Since 1994 the Missouri Department of Corrections has taken DNA samples of all felons convicted of committing a violent crime. Beginning next year, Missouri will join 33 other states in collecting DNA on all convicted felons -- no matter the crime.

Of the many theories homicide detectives kick around, the most common pins Jane Doe's killing on a parent or close relative. If they're serving a prison term for some other crime, police may soon know Jane Doe's identity, and possibly that of her killer.

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