Jeff Jardine

Jardine: Cousin's case provided practice as sleuth

From the e-mails and voice mails:

QUITE THE GUMSHOE -- If Corey Oiesen ever decides to ditch the public relations business, she's got a future as an investigator.

Before the 40-year-old Santa Cruz County woman helped Stanislaus County sheriff's investigators solve the identity of her Jane Doe cousin, Mary Alice Willey, last month, Oiesen had to do a significant bit of detective work just to trace her own roots.

Willey was found stabbed to death and floating in the Delta-Mendota Canal in 1971. Her identity stayed a mystery until Sept. 29.

We'll try to keep this simple: Oiesen's mom was given up for adoption in 1938. So her mom never met sisters Maxine (Mary Alice Willey's mom) or Della, among numerous siblings.

In December 1997, before Oiesen knew Mary Alice Willey ever existed, she set out to find her mother's biological family, for herself and her mom, now living in Florida. She ultimately discovered Maxine and Della had died. Worse yet, Della's last name was Smith, one of the most common surnames.

A genealogy Web site listed 400 deceased Della Smiths.

"I saw that there was one who died in the next county over from me and had even lived in my county," Oiesen said. "I doubted it could be her, but I thought I could learn the process by following the California Della Smith, as I would have local access to records if I needed them. I learned this Della was born in Indiana, so I used all these records to follow the family as it moved down the East Coast and over to California."

Call it pure luck. That first Della Smith she traced was the right one. In April 1998, five months of searching led her to Della Smith's daughter, Mary.

Mary's last name? Jones. Really. I'm not clever enough to make this up.

When Oiesen tracked down and contacted Mary Jones and another cousin, Sally Wilson, they said: "You found us. Now can you find Mary Alice?"

"One mystery solved, another begun," Oiesen said.

So she spent 10 years searching public records and the Internet, calling law enforcement and other public agencies. No luck. Because Mary Alice's body hadn't been identified in 1971, she simply disappeared until April, when detectives revisited the case.

Searching online, Oiesen came upon my column about the Jane Doe case, the photos and video and knew instantly her luck had changed. She contacted Stanislaus County authorities. Cousin Mary Jones provided the DNA sample that matched Mary Alice's, confirming her ID.

Mary Alice Willey, by the way, will be returned to her grave in the Patterson Cemetery at 11 a.m. on Halloween.

SPEAKING OF WHICH -- Each year as Halloween approaches, we get requests to do stories about the haunted houses various nonprofit organizations stage to raise money.

One, from Linda Mager of the Tuolumne County 4-H Council, jumped out at me like a goblin on a sugar high.

The club will host its 10th "Realms of Darkness" haunted house -- its second year in the old hay barn behind the J.S. West store on South Washington Street in Sonora.

From 1898 until J.S. West bought the business in 1997, it was Hales & Symons. It sold lumber, hardware, appliances, propane, feed, seed and ice.

My dad ran the feed store from roughly 1968 until retiring in 1996, and I worked there while I was in high school in the early to mid-1970s. I spent plenty of time in that old barn, coming home many hot summer afternoons soaked in sweat and covered with oat hay, alfalfa or wheat straw chaff.

Until you've bucked hay, you'll never know you can itch in so many places -- and for the $1.35 hourly minimum wage of the day.

I don't remember any close encounters with ghosts in that old barn, though. Perhaps they moved in after J.S. West closed the feed store several years ago.

For its "Realms of Darkness" the 4-H group transforms the old barn into an elaborate and macabre maze of rooms and displays.

Volunteers put in hundreds of hours designing and building the sets, coordinating rooms and the maze. The costumed teens and adults performing are all associated with 4-H.

The haunted house runs from Oct. 22 through Nov. 1, though it's dark, as in closed, Oct. 26 and Oct. 27. For more information, visit www.realmsofdarkness.org.

IMPATIENT PATIENT -- Apparently Ginger McCurtin of Lakewood, Wash., was a bit antsy. She was born a month premature Oct. 7, 1969, at Modesto's Doctors Medical Center, then known as Doctors Hospital. Delivered by Caesarean section, she spent a month in an incubator in the hospital's maternity ward, earning her "Baby of the Month" and a feature in Doctors' monthly bulletin.

McCurtin, who turned 39 this month, wants to find a copy of that newsletter. Alexis Dias, DMC's marketing manager, said she found archives dating back only about six years. So McCurtin hopes someone reading this -- a former employee? -- might have one to spare. Her e-mail is jinjermc@yahoo.com.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or 578-2383.

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