Nearly half a century after the saga of “Mountain Jane Doe” began, local authorities in the small mining town of Harlan, Kentucky, say they are one step closer to identifying the murder victim first recovered from a remote trail outside of town in 1969.

Listen to the first exhumation

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The young woman was unnamed at the time of her discovery and buried in a hilltop paupers cemetery. With improvements in forensic science since then, authorities revisited her case and first attempted to exhume her remains in November 2014, hoping DNA would shed light on the woman’s identity. But the local elected coroner of Harlan County, Philip Bianchi, along with the Kentucky State Police, quickly realized they had dug up the wrong body.

The cemetery where Mountain Jane Doe was had few records confirming who was buried there, other than attempts by a local resident to document existing grave markers. Many of the markers are simply small pieces of aluminum driven into the ground; over time, they’ve been misplaced or turned out to be in the wrong location.

In November, officials again attempted to locate her. This time, they believe they have the right body.

“When we got down to the casket, we could compare the casket handle – the corner hardware – with an old photograph we had from the newspaper,” said Bianchi, who also owns a local funeral home. “It looked like that was the same shape. When we opened the lid of that casket up, there was a body bag, which we expected to find the first time.”

“I feel 99.9 percent sure that we have the correct remains,” he added.

A team of anthropologists at the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification has examined the latest set of remains and concluded that they are consistent with what was known about Mountain Jane Doe at the time of her death.

She was thought to be about 20 years old with a medium build and reddish-blond hair when she was found stabbed to death in June 1969 on a trail near Harlan. Many locals refer to her as Little Shepherd Trail Girl.

Bianchi said the university will extract DNA and compare it with a family that believes she may be a lost relative. He expects to learn the results this summer.

Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting first reported the stabbing victim’s story in September as part of a project exploring cases in the United States of people who are deceased and unidentified. There are more than 10,000 such cases open in a database called the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs, launched in 2007 with help from the U.S. Justice Department. As of June, 1,881 cases in the system were homicides. For another 5,517 cases, the manner of death was undetermined or not listed. An analysis by Reveal showed that as of August, 916 Jane and John Does in the system were listed as children and young adults.

Using that data, Reveal built an online tool that anyone can use to compare reports of missing people with Jane and John Does reported to NamUs by medical examiners, coroners and law enforcement officials. More than 250 potential matches have been submitted by users, but Reveal chose to allow the public to decide whether a match seemed strong enough to contact authorities on their own.

Darla Jackson, a Harlan funeral-home owner and amateur historian, helped build momentum for exhuming Mountain Jane Doe when she included the case in a book about ghost stories and curious tales from the county’s past. But Jackson said she was unaware of the renewed attempt to locate Mountain Jane Doe’s proper grave until she recently made a trip to the cemetery and noticed freshly turned earth that indicated digging had occurred.

Meanwhile, authorities have learned more about the first body that came out of the ground in November 2014. Bianchi now believes the remains could belong to Alex Allen, an older man whose grave marker was found nearby. Anthropologists examined the remains and concluded that they were “skeletally mature” and likely belonged to someone in his or her “middle to later years.”

G.W. Schulz is a reporter for Reveal, covering security, privacy, technology and criminal justice. Since joining The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008, he's reported stories for NPR, KQED, Wired.com, The Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones and more. Prior to that, he wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and was an early contributor to The Chauncey Bailey Project, which won a Tom Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors in 2008. Schulz also has won awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California Chapter. He graduated from the University of Kansas and is based in Austin, Texas.