Back in April, when Stanislaus County sheriff's deputies exhumed a Jane Doe from an indigent grave in Patterson, the odds of even learning her identity weren't particularly good.
Detectives who investigated the woman's murder in 1971 couldn't do it, and that was when the case was fresh. Identify her 37 years later and find her killer? Dream on. That's story fodder for a cheesy one-hour TV drama. It seldom happens that way in the real world.
Through detective work and forensics, advanced technology and due diligence, deputies have put a name on this victim: Mary Alice Willey. They know now she was 20 when she died and she had been in Northern California at least year before her death.
They know far more about her now than did the detectives who handled her case.
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They've reunited her with her few remaining relatives, including three who came to a press conference Monday at the Sheriff's Department.
By publicizing this new information, maybe someone else will come forward to tell authorities who Mary Alice Willey knew, who her friends were and, perhaps most important, whom she was last seen with.
Maybe now, with a name and a face to remember, someone will recall just the bit of information that will tell investigators how she might have ended up in the Delta-Mendota Canal with 65 stab wounds in September 1971.
Two months before, Paul and Maxine Willey of Anaheim got a letter from their daughter, who attended California Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo, before transferring to San Francisco State. An only child born into a family of Christian Scientists, Mary Alice Willey never lacked for love.
"Her world had been a very closeted environment," cousin Mary Jones said. "They idolized her. They were very kind, loving, generous people."
The letter was her last known correspondence.
"The paper trail ends in July 1971," said Corey Oiesen, a cousin who has spent hundreds of hours over the past decade trying to learn Willey's fate.
Willey's father died in the mid-1980s of an illness that began about the time his daughter disappeared. Maxine Willey died in the mid-1990s, Oiesen said.
They died unaware Willey had been murdered, cousin Sally Wilson said.
"They thought she was just in school at the time," Wilson said. "We believe they did everything they could, but they might not have known what to do."
Oiesen said she found no record of a missing person report filed at the time by the Willeys with San Francisco police. The family thinks the Willeys believed their daughter blended into the subculture of the Haight, and would someday return.
"They thought she was still alive but had just disappeared," Wilson said.
The Internet didn't exist in 1971, and although police departments communicated on missing persons cases, nothing about this one triggered information. The case went cold. Willey went largely forgotten until Detective Ken Hedrick looked at her file last spring, and Chief Deputy Coroner Kristi Ah You organized the exhumation. They collected DNA samples and a forensic sculptor made a model of her face and head that was remarkably accurate.
Then, Oiesen searched online last summer for new Jane Doe information, as she did routinely. She found my April column about the case on modbee.com and knew instantly this Jane Doe might be cousin Mary Willey. She contacted the Sheriff's Department. They arranged for DNA testing involving maternal cousin Mary Jones. It matched.
They now have a name to go with the face. A big part of the mystery is solved.
That gives them a chance, no matter how slim, to find her killer, too.
Jeff Jardine can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2383.