Jeff Jardine

The more information out there the better, in missing person cold cases

Kristi Ah You, then Stanislaus County chief deputy coroner, explains how the autopsy photograph in her hand was useful for forensic artist Gloria Nusse, center, to construct a clay model of Jane Doe 48, at right at the sheriff’s office in Ceres.
Kristi Ah You, then Stanislaus County chief deputy coroner, explains how the autopsy photograph in her hand was useful for forensic artist Gloria Nusse, center, to construct a clay model of Jane Doe 48, at right at the sheriff’s office in Ceres. Modesto Bee file

No, the remains found in the Sierra near Pinecrest last week weren’t those of 67-year-old Nita Mayo, who disappeared in 2005.

Tuolumne County sheriff’s investigators confirmed that to Mayo’s adult children on Tuesday, telling them the dental records didn’t match up. They were also told the remains were of a woman, but not those of 46-year-old Columbia cafe owner Patty Tolhurst, who vanished two years ago, either. In both cases, the victims’ vehicles were found abandoned at Donnell’s Vista Point, 42 miles east of Sonora.

In fact, to this point – and it still is very early in the process – investigators have been more successful eliminating some possibilities than making the 100 percent positive identification that will give one family some answers. Or they might very well have a good idea of the identity and simply aren’t saying until confirmation comes back from the Department of Justice lab and family members are formally notified. As Tuolumne County sheriff’s Sgt. Andrea Benson said, it could be weeks – not days – until they release that information. That’s their prerogative. Other agencies opt to provide much of what they know as soon as they know it because it can generate more information, tips and clues in these cases.

In 2008, Stanislaus County investigators and the coroner’s office opened the grave of a Jane Doe who’d been stabbed 65 times and dumped into the Delta Mendota Canal near Westley on Sept. 11, 1971. The body didn’t match anyone reported missing at the time. The case went cold, happening long before the Internet was around to instantly spread information. Detectives sent Telexes detailing her physical description and other facts to every law enforcement agency in the state, but got no responses in return. So she lay in her grave in Patterson for nearly 37 years until Kristi Ah You, then Stanislaus County’s chief deputy coroner, decided to exhume her and send her bones to a team that included anthropologists, a forensic dentist, and a forensic artist who even fashioned a bust of what the woman might have looked like.

Meanwhile, a woman in Santa Cruz had been combing the Internet trying to discover anything that might tell her family whatever happened to a cousin she never met, but had disappeared sometime around 1970.

The woman used a Google search to come across my column about the cold case and exhumation, and she contacted Stanislaus County authorities. She provided photos and DNA samples. DNA matched that from the remains in the grave. And the photo looked remarkably like the plaster bust created by the forensic artist.

Just like that, Jane Doe became murder victim Mary Alice Willey, a woman with a face, name, family and as it turned out, a strange past that included association with a black militant group in San Francisco linked to the murder of a San Francisco police sergeant. It’s a long story and one I’ve already told, but could tell only because Stanislaus County sheriff’s officials resurrected the case, did their jobs and also got very lucky.

“It was the case I was proudest of,” Ah You said. She now runs a Modesto funeral home and sits on the Modesto City Council. Beyond the technical aspects, she cited the importance of bringing the media in to get the information out.

“We invited the whole world in,” she said. “I was thrilled when the sheriff let (The Bee) in on it.”

Tuolumne County and state Justice Department officials have the benefit of greater technology and communication tools than existed when Willey’s body was found in 1971. Dr. Robert Lawrence, a forensic pathologist from Stockton who has testified in hundreds of cases, said there are multiple steps and factors involved in the process, and perhaps more so in the mountain areas.

“Was there clothing accompanying the remains? And how much in the way of remains are we talking about?” Lawrence said. “Was it an Indian burial ground? Some of those bones are over 100 years old, and you’d take them to an anthropologist, who would determine whether they are human.”

The integrity of the remains will help determine the sex, age and race of the person. Were there bullet wounds? Evidence of trauma? If determined to be more recent – within the past couple of decades – they’ll use dental records if available, which proved the remains weren’t Nita Mayo’s.

“DNA is the last thing because its very expensive,” Lawrence said. “You get it (mostly) from the long bones, and the bone marrow.”

But DNA only works when it matches DNA stored or provided by family members or others close to the case. The federal Justice Department operates the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System Web page on which family members or law enforcement can register the names of missing persons and submit DNA samples that can enable investigators to solve cases more quickly.

Ultimately, it takes a combination of thorough investigative work, science and technology, using the media to their advantage and some good, old-fashioned lucky breaks to make a positive ID that allows a family to finally know what it likely feared and presumed long ago.