Jane Doe at 30: Authorities think they’re close to ID’ing woman

Coroner hoping for forensic breakthrough in 2022

They have a promising lead. It’s no sure bet, but La Salle County Coroner Rich Ploch is as hopeful as he’s ever been they’ll finally identify Jane Doe.

Today marks 30 years since the still-unidentified woman was found in a cornfield near Norway. Each year has passed in frustration, as repeated attempts to identify her have come up short – even though new technologies all were tried.

But the 30th anniversary brings new hope. Recent tests have yielded more than a dozen leads and one shows real promise. It will take at least six months for a lab to confirm it, but Ploch thinks they’ll at least link Jane to a family tree.

“That’s the best I can hope for now,” Ploch said.

Jane’s identity has stumped La Salle County authorities since she was discovered on Sept. 13, 1991. She was 35 to 45 years of age, petite (5 foot 4, 120 pounds) and tattooed. Cause of death: undetermined, though toxicology suggested lots of cocaine.

Authorities quickly hit a wall. Fingerprints were negative. Nobody even reported her disappearance. Leads poured in, but none panned out. With no one claiming her body, Jane was buried in Ottawa before Christmas 1991.

And that, for more than a decade, was that.

But in 2013, authorities decided to try forensic technologies not available when they found her a dozen years earlier. A judge signed the exhumation order and back to the lab went Jane Doe.

First, DNA was extracted from a bone. The FBI loaded Jane’s genetic information into a national database and then rendered a 3-dimensional facial composite. No hits.

Second, the Smithsonian Institute took bone and tooth samples for isotope testing to show what foods she’d been weaned on and, by extension, where she’d been raised. The FBI produced a “regression” photo, showing what she looked like as a girl. Still no hits.

Tom Templeton, who retired this summer as La Salle County sheriff, was a deputy in 1991 and was on scene when they found the body. Jane’s case nagged at him and the succession of seeming breakthroughs and dead-ends was frustrating.

“I had hoped we’d have come up with something sooner,” Templeton said, recalling the stop-and-go progress of the case.

Then, in 2019, authorities caught the Golden State Killer using a new type of research called genetic genealogy. When the news reached the La Salle County Coroner’s Office, the staff phoned an IVCC instructor, Dr. Matthew Johll, to ask if genetic genealogy might identify Jane Doe. Johll thought it was worth a try.

This time, they got a hit.

As Johll explained it, millions of Americans have voluntarily entered their DNA into commercial databases run by companies such as Ancestry.com or 23 and Me. He reasoned that if a lab could find enough structural commonalities between Jane’s DNA and others on file, they might get a partial match.

“The more people in those databases, the more chances you have of finding a match,” Johll said. “The trouble we have is the DNA we had on file for Jane Doe isn’t compatible with the way DNA is analyzed for genetic genealogy.”

Luckily, they still had one of the teeth used in the Smithsonian’s isotope research. The FBI directed Johll to an Oklahoma lab to wring some genetic clues from the sample.

“It’s actually really challenging to get DNA out of a tooth,” Johll said. “They did multiple extractions to get enough material to send to a DNA company.”

The DNA company got what Johll called “a really strong match” to an elderly brother and sister, whom authorities have not yet publicly identified. The siblings not only shared some structural DNA commonalities with Jane but were quite interested to learn if Jane was, as Johll suspected, their first cousin.

Then Johll discovered another clue in the DNA sample. Jane shared some DNA from their father’s side of the tree but not their mother’s. That raised some questions: Was Jane born from a prior marriage or out of wedlock to one of their father’s siblings? Trouble was, anybody in the family who knew those answers was long gone.

“I was screaming for joy when we found a first cousin,” Johll recalled, “but not all births are recorded in the family tree and I think that’s where we are here.”

The trail is by no means cold, but Johll said more detailed (and more time-consuming) tests are needed to conclusively link Jane to this family tree.

“Narrowing it down is so much more challenging,” he said.

Ploch, for one, is encouraged. This is the closest they’ve come to solving the mystery since Michael Jordan won his first title with the Bulls. With fingers crossed, Ploch thinks Jane’s mom and/or dad will be learned in the next six months.

Templeton, for one, will be watching hawk-like for the announcement.

“I really wanted to put a name on that woman’s tombstone before I left office, and I didn’t quite make it,” he said. “I think it will be fantastic if we can find out who her family is and who she is.”

Tom Collins

Tom Collins

Tom Collins covers criminal justice in La Salle County.