Grundy County Board recognizes Coroner’s Office for work solving JoAnn “Vicki” Smith case

Deputy Chief Corner Brandon Johnson speaks during Thursday's press conference about how he was able to identify JoAnn "Vicky" Smith.

The Grundy County Board recognized Coroner John Callahan and Deputy Chief Coroner Brandon Johnson for their efforts in solving the 1976 cold case that led to them identifying JoAnn “Vicki” Smith.

Callahan and Johnson announced in June that they’d identified the victim then known as Jane “Seneca” Doe found in a field in Seneca 47 years ago using DNA and genealogical data. Smith was adopted and graduated high school in the Cincinnati area, and her family held a celebration of life earlier this month. Her grave has been moved to South Carolina, where her mother is buried.

Callahan said he wants to recognize Johnson’s work, which is something he’s never done before.

“It’s not something I’ve ever done, actually recognizing employees, simply because of the nature of our work and in sensitivity to the families,” Callahan said. “But this wasn’t an ordinary death investigation. It’s something we train to do through our certifications and such, but to be honest, very few coroners or death investigators get to carry out that work simply because they don’t have it.”

Callahan said this is been on his plate since he took office in 1998, but he was by himself until Christina Hintze-Symoniak and Johnson came along. They were able to talk about the case more in 2017, and dug up old reports from the sheriff’s department.

They exhumed the body in 2018, which Callahan said was interesting from a professional standpoint.

“It’s not like TV where they just go over to the computer, punch it in and voila, you get a name,” Callahan said. “Professionally speaking, we exhumed her not knowing what you’re getting into. There was no records of documentation as far as what type of casket or vault they used, which was neither, as it turned out.”

Johnson was assigned as the lead investigator because he was going to be dealing with different agencies, and Callahan didn’t think it would be a six-year investigation.

Over that time, Johnson worked with different DNA laboratories in Texas.

“At one point, they asked us what our budget was and we told them we didn’t have one, so this was done through grants and memorial contributions of people left to these DNA laboratories around the country,” Callahan said.

Johnson would follow leads and sometimes, he’d get a DNA hit and have to call a family who doesn’t have anyone missing. Johnson made a call in May that held the key to solving the case. He found one of Smith’s brothers.

“Ronnie acknowledged that he remembered he had a sister that went missing one night in June 1976,” Callahan said. “As a family, they always treated her as still living out there somewhere. They just figured she left home for whatever reason.”

Callahan said it was complicated, because everyone in the family was adopted. Johnson worked with Ronnie in North Carolina and a sister, Phyllis, in Chicago.

“There was still a lot to gain,” Callahan said. “The pieces of the puzzle were coming together, but we still needed something physical.”

Johnson worked with the Ohio Bureau of Investigations and they came up with a birth certificate of a woman who was born and then adopted.

From there, Smith was cremated and she was able to join her family for the first time since 1976. She was laid to rest next to her mother in North Carolina.

“Our regret, obviously, is we wish we could have gotten this done before in 2010, before her mother passed,” Callahan said. ‘But it’s incredible and amazing what DNA can do. It’s even more incredible, especially when you start talking about adoptions, what someone like Brandon can do either on Facebook, social media and computers. He was at it every day, probably getting tired of me asking if he’s got anything going, if he got any hits or anything to follow up on, or that type of thing.”

Callahan thanked Johnson for his faith and determination to stick through with the case, because many times it was discouraging.

Michael Urbanec

Michael Urbanec

Michael Urbanec covers Grundy County and the City of Morris, Coal City, Minooka, and more for the Morris Herald-News