The Case That Haunts

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

Dec 1, 2004 at 4:00 am
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.

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.

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.

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.

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."

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.

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.

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.

Until then, the case goes on much as it has for the past two decades, with investigators chasing down any leads they can.

Carroll's logs show he last worked the case October 25, when he ran fingerprints of a missing Jamaican girl against those of Jane Doe. Those very same fingerprints were tested back in 1988, but he wanted to rule them out a second time. In a case as vexing as Jane Doe's, police have checked and re-checked all their leads.

Resting next to Jane Doe's grave is a white teddy bear, left there two years ago by Sharon Nolte, the woman convinced that Jane Doe is a Chippewa Indian. Next to the stuffed toy, Nolte left the child an offering of food -- a McDonald's Happy Meal. Today the food is long gone.

Jane Doe's memorial is in stark contrast to the one left to a little girl in Kansas City. It was there, in 2001, that police stumbled across the headless body of a three- to five-year-old African-American girl. Immediately, detectives began looking for similarities between Jane Doe and the Kansas City victim but failed to find any link. Like Jane Doe, the Kansas City victim's identity and that of her killer remain an enigma.

Three years later, Carroll has not entirely ruled out a connection.

"Hard to believe this could happen twice in the same state and not be related," he says. "Maybe the culprit was in prison for fifteen to eighteen years for another crime and came back to do the same thing again."

This past August, Kansas City residents established a permanent memorial to the girl they've come to call Precious Doe. Next to the woods where police found her body, they've planted a pair of hawthorne trees in her memory. Two white cement benches offer visitors a chance to reflect on her death.

Jane Doe's grave is nearly impossible to find. Washington Park Cemetery, in which she is buried, has fallen on tough times. In 1991 the cemetery's owner, Virginia Younger, committed suicide shortly after the state's attorney general sued over botched burials. The allegations included reports of bones strewn about the property, bodies missing from graves and multiple caskets dumped into the same plots. In 1993 the cemetery faced further upheaval when thousands of bodies were disinterred to make way for MetroLink and to level a hill that obstructed air traffic at nearby Lambert Airport.

Today visitors to the cemetery are greeted by a rusty iron gate and a shuttered house that once served as the graveyard chapel and museum. Blanketing the grounds, waist-high thickets of poison ivy and weeds choke the toppled tombstones of generations of black St. Louisans. The air stirs with the sound of cars barreling down Interstate 70 -- the din of traffic broken only by the roar of a commercial jetliner as it makes its descent toward the airport.

At the time of her interment, no tombstone marked Jane Doe's grave. Months after her funeral, an Illinois high school class launched a letter-writing campaign urging city officials and the cemetery to place a marker on her grave. In response, the owner of a monument company came forward and donated a small $300 stone. The owner's wife chose the somber inscription from a book of epitaphs. It reads: "The saddened hearts were healed knowing the pain of life is over and the beauty of the soul revealed."

Burgoon years ago videotaped the location of Jane Doe's grave for police records, afraid that when he died, she would be lost forever amid the tangled shrubbery. It is here that the former detective finds himself on a recent afternoon.

After pausing a moment to reflect on the long-ago tragedy, Burgoon is ready to head back to his car. He knows he'll never stop thinking of the little girl who has consumed his thoughts for much of the past twenty years. In nine simple words he summarizes the thousands of hours he and other detectives have spent trying to crack the city's most vexing murder.

"This case, we struck out," he says. "It wasn't anyone's fault."