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In the summer of 1969, a young woman was found dead off a remote mountain trail in Harlan, Kentucky. She’d been stabbed multiple times. Her identity was a mystery, so locals referred to her as Mountain Jane Doe. Decades later, a woman from the area takes up the cause of identifying the murdered woman, and her quest for answers leads investigators to a hillside grave and a DNA lab, bringing some long-awaited answers. 

Mountain Jane Doe is one of more than 13,000 in a national database of unidentified dead. There are no national laws requiring coroners or law enforcement to use the database, and as a result, cases fall through the cracks and family members are left in the dark about their loved ones. 

An exhumation leads to a series of unexpected revelations about who Mountain Jane Doe was and why she might have been killed. Her case speaks to the complexity – and importance – of opening cold cases and using DNA science to try to solve them. 

But as one mystery is solved, another remains unanswered: Who killed her?


This episode originally was broadcast April 1, 2017. We updated this show Jan. 26, 2019.

Credits

Reporter: G.W. Schulz  | Producer and Reporter: Michael I Schiller | Editor: Taki Telonidis | Additional reporting: Rachel de Leon |  Production support: Michael Montgomery | Investigation Editor: Fernando Diaz | Production manager: Amy Mostafa | Sound design and music by: Jim Briggs and Claire Mullen | Episode photo: Scott Anger | Digital producer: Sarah Mirk | Executive producer: Kevin Sullivan | Host: Al Letson

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, Democracy Fund, and the Inasmuch Foundation.

Dig Deeper

Read: Left for dead: How America fails the missing and unidentified

Read: Program to identify dead and missing across US put on hold

Watch: The Dead Unknown

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal’s radio stories is the audio.

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Al Letson:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson.
Al Letson:Karen Stipes was around a year old when her mother went missing.
Karen Stipes:I had to suffer through my whole life because of whatever happened with my mother. I wish that someone would tell me, let me know what happened.
Al Letson:Les Rugg’s son disappeared on a fishing trip.
Less Rugg:My son, Kyle Rugg, is 20 years old. He disappeared on a Wednesday, March the 4th, 2015.
Al Letson:Alice Almandaris’ father went missing in Houston. His regular phone calls to his daughter just stopped cold.
Alice Almandari…:My dad was reported missing end of June, 2002.
Al Letson:People vanish. Right now, around 90,000 men, women and children are missing in the United States. These are just a few of the family members of missing people we spoke to across the country.
Alice Almandari…:There’s no way to describe what it feels like to not know where someone is or what happened to them. The worst part about it is not knowing.
Al Letson:Unfortunately, some of those missing people will never come home, like Alice’s dad. His body was unidentified for 10 years and was buried as a John Doe just a few miles from his home. His daughter had no idea what happened to him for all those years.

We’ve done a lot of reporting about Jane and John Does and the families they leave behind. We found there are no national laws requiring coroners or police to enter unidentified cases into a national database that could help send them home. When we started looking at this in 2014, there were fewer than 10,000 unidentified bodies in a national database. Today, there are more than 13,000. Some are being stored in morgues; others have been buried in public cemeteries without a name. Every one of those people had a life, a story to tell.

Today, we’re going deeper into one of those stories, about a murder victim whose body was found on a mountain trail in Kentucky in 1969. This show originally aired in 2017, and before we get started, a quick heads-up. A lot of show is about death and dead people, so it can get a little gruesome and it’s not for all listeners. Michael Schiller picks up the story in Harlan, Kentucky.
Michael Schille…:We’re driving through southeastern Kentucky. It’s deep in coal country near the Virginia border. We’re headed to Harlan. It’s in a valley surrounded by the dense forests of the Appalachian hills. Pine Mountain, to the northeast, is where you’ll find Little Shepherd’s Trail, a single lane mountaintop road that stretches for 40 miles, snaking along the top of a ridge.

Little Shepherd Trail might sound familiar. There’s a novel named after it, a Civil War epic. This is where they found Mountain Jane Doe.
Darla Jackson:On little Shepherd Trail, the body of a young woman was discovered by a man who was picking flowers for his wife.
Michael Schille…:That’s Darla Jackson.
Darla Jackson:I was born May 25, 1969. It’s possible she was murdered on the day I was born.
Michael Schille…:Darla’s a former Miss Harlan County with a winning smile and bright green eyes. She’s also an author and an amateur historian who’s been researching this story for years.
Darla Jackson:You don’t happen upon Little Shepherd Trail; you go to Little Shepherd Trail.
Michael Schille…:The body was found on a steep slope in the forest brush.
Darla Jackson:She was found about 50 feet off of the road. She had been there a week at least, maybe more. The only thing found with her was a restaurant receipt from the Cincinnati, Ohio area, and a blouse or cloth found with her. She had been stabbed in the chest multiple times, no clothing on her, and it didn’t take long to realize that there was no clue as to who this woman was.
Bill Bowman:Her face was completely gone. All you could see was the skull.
Michael Schille…:Bill Bowman was just out of high school when the body was found. He was working at the Appalachian Regional Hospital in the medical supplies department.
Bill Bowman:There was a very strange odor in the hospital. One of the supervisors came and asked if I was squeamish, if I wouldn’t mind participating in their autopsy. It was mostly just suit up, mask up and stand there with a spray can of Lysol in each hand and just spray while they were doing the autopsy.
Michael Schille…:Bill wasn’t trained in this type of work at all. He was simply drafted at the last minute to help the medical examiner because there was no one else around to do it.
Bill Bowman:They pretty much limed her down, put her in a bag and that was pretty much it.
Michael Schille…:A few days later they buried her in the same body bag.
Darla Jackson:She was taken up to this cemetery by the rescue squad. She was buried in this casket and a small grave marker was placed for her. And that is about all we hear of her at that time.
Bill Bowman:That was pretty much a shocker for the community to find this girl like that, murdered up on this trail. Everyone was wondering, “What’s going on? What happened to her? Why is she here? Where’d she come from?”
Michael Schille…:We couldn’t find anyone still alive who was there on that day of June in 1969 when they found the body, but we did find an eye-witness account from a 2009 news broadcast on the local TV station, WYMT. It’s from Joe Mahan, just a couple years before he passed away. Joe owned a funeral home in town, and he was the guy who actually went and retrieved the body.
Joe Mahan:It still stays with me. I pray a lot over this, hoping that she can be identified and maybe the killer be identified also.
Michael Schille…:Joe held a funeral service for Mountain Jane Doe; he even paid for the casket himself.
Joe Mahan:I just couldn’t put that little girl in a county casket, thinking and knowing what she may have gone through with maybe on that mountainside some night.
Michael Schille…:People came from all around. They lined up outside his small red brick chapel for the funeral. And after they buried her, that was kind of it. Police had a few leads over the years that never really went anywhere, but the people of Harlan and the Kentucky State Police never forgot about Mountain Jane Doe.
Det. Sgt. Jacki…:This is a case that I have heard about since I was little.
Michael Schille…:Jackie Pickrell is from Harlan. She’s with the Kentucky State Police.
Det. Sgt. Jacki…:Whenever I came here as detective sergeant, I went and found the case just to read through it. There’s just not a lot to work with in this case.
Michael Schille…:Mountain Jane Doe’s case was passed down from one detective to the next for decades. Retired state police detective, Ken Crider, tried to solve it in the early ’90s.
Ken Crider:The one thing that probably bugged me more than anything in my career was not being able to solve something like this because it really matters to people.
Michael Schille…:Over the years, there were lots of theories about who Mountain Jane Doe might be and who might have killed her, but they never panned out. The case pretty much goes cold until the fall of 2000, when something happens that sets it back in motion.
Darla Jackson:I hadn’t thought about her in years.
Michael Schille…:That’s Darla Jackson again.
Darla Jackson:I’d gotten married. I’d had a child. I was raising a family, so this young girl that was found murdered in ’69 was not even a memory, really, at the time.
Michael Schille…:Darla grew up hearing stories of Mountain Jane Doe as a kid, but those memories had faded. She’s a mother now and she’s busy helping run the family business, her husband’s funeral home.
Michael Schille…:So when did she come back into your life?
Darla Jackson:She came back into my life in November of 2000. My Aunt Loretta called me. She first asked me, “Do you remember the girl found in 1969 on Little Shepherd Trail?” I said, “Yeah, of course. I remember it.” She said, “Well, your Uncle James is saying that he may know who killed her. He wants you and I to help.”
Michael Schille…:Her uncle, James Saylor, had recently moved into a trailer next to the Harlan Gas Cemetery, where Mountain Jane Doe is buried.
Darla Jackson:He says that maybe a few days later, that he wakes up and he sees a girl.
Michael Schille…:He tells the same thing to Darla’s aunt, Loretta Martin.
Loretta Martin:He said she had short, very neatly blond hair, like a little pageboy. She had a very clean, crisp white blouse. So it was a very detailed description. He said, “I started to sit up. I put my legs on the side of the bed, and when I did, she disappeared.”
Michael Schille…:Now, Reveal doesn’t do ghost stories, and there isn’t any proof anywhere that psychics actually solve crimes, even though it’s well known that detectives consult with them from time to time. Needless to say, I was skeptical of this story. Uncle James’ sister, Loretta, was too.
Loretta Martin:I ask him. I said, “James, are you sure you’re not … What are you smoking?” I said, “Were you asleep when you saw this vision of this girl?” He started telling me all about it. He said, “No.”
Michael Schille…:Did you ever suspect your brother had any involvement or knowledge?
Loretta Martin:Yes, I did. I asked him. Absolutely. I said, “Now, you could end up in prison.” I said, “You will be the first suspect.”
Michael Schille…:Uncle James described intimate details of the crime scene. Some of what he said had been in the local media and other things hadn’t. We have no way of knowing how much of the story he got right, but he told it all to Darla.
Darla Jackson:Some of the details that he told me were that she was stabbed. That she was dragged and dumped. That a car brought her there. He felt that she was already dead when she arrived on Little Shepherd Trail.
Michael Schille…:What did you do with this information?
Darla Jackson:Well, the first thing I did was I wrote it all down.
Loretta Martin:He went out there and reported this to the state police.
Michael Schille…:Darla and her aunt both say they reported what Uncle James told them to the police. I checked with the Kentucky State Police, and Uncle James was never a suspect in their investigation. They don’t have any record of a James Saylor in their case file at all. No one jotted down that a local man or his family had called in with some details about the crime.
Darla Jackson:I have lost many nights’ sleep over this case and this girl in the past 15 years.
Michael Schille…:Darla recognizes she became somewhat obsessed with the case. She even had a new grave marker made. She keeps the original one at her house.
Darla Jackson:This is my bedroom. I think I put this marker in here in 2008.
Michael Schille…:She keeps the grave marker in her nightstand next to her bed. It’s just a small aluminum rectangle mounted to a metal stake. The red paint is flaking off, and engraved in white letters, it says “Unidentified girl, burial June 5th, 1969.”
Darla Jackson:She could not speak for herself and no one was speaking for her. I wanted people to remember her. She deserved a voice, so I spoke for her.
Michael Schille…:Darla wrote a book about Mountain Jane Doe, based on her uncle’s visions. In 2009, she got the attention of local TV news.
Audio:Anyone who was alive in Harlan County in 1969 probably remembers the story of a young woman found stabbed to death on Pine Mountain. Nearly 40 years later, it’s still not know who she was.
Michael Schille…:This newscast changes everything. This is where the ghost story crosses over into the real world. It stirs things up in the community and brings Mountain Jane Doe back into the minds of people who remember her. One of them is Karen Stipes, the Kentucky woman we heard from earlier.
Karen Stipes:I watched the whole program and then I called. They’d had a number at the bottom of the screen, so I called. I told them that that was my mother. He said, “No, it wouldn’t have been.” That she was younger and didn’t have any children, that it couldn’t be her, so …
Michael Schille…:Karen’s mother went missing in 1969, the same year Mountain Jane Doe was found. Her mom disappeared from Letcher County, right next to Harlan.
Audio:Nearly 40 years later, it’s still not known who she was, where she came from, and who killed her.
Michael Schille…:Another person who happened to catch the newscast that night was a guy named Todd Matthews.
Todd Matthews:I’ve always said some of my best friends are dead. People say “I’m sorry,” but they were dead when I met them.
Michael Schille…:Todd Matthews has a dark sense of humor. It’s how he makes it through a tough job.
Todd Matthews:For the most part, my day job is finding the missing among the dead, the unidentified deceased.
Michael Schille…:Todd’s got hair that’s long in the back and feathered on the sides and a thick groomed mustache. He was one of the first employees of the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs, the program that works to identify John and Jane Does. Over the years, NamUs has helped to solve more than 2,000 of these cases.
Todd Matthews:I found out about Harlan County Jane Doe case because of Darla’s book.
Darla Jackson:He said that in my book that I wrote, that no one was interested in this young girl and her murder. He informed me that he was very interested.
Todd Matthews:Okay, here we go. Five, four, three, two, one.
Michael Schille…:After Darla’s book is published, Todd invites her onto a radio show he hosts about America’s missing.
Todd Matthews:Welcome, Darla.
Darla Jackson:Thank you.
Todd Matthews:How are you doing?
Darla Jackson:Oh, I’m doing great.
Todd Matthews:I remember the day I first laid eyes on Darla Jackson. She was just a true southern belle. A lovely woman, very compassionate.
Darla Jackson:That’s such an injustice. Unidentified girl, killer never brought to justice, and just simply forgotten on the side of a hill in Harlan County.
Todd Matthews:Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Todd Matthews:I saw a lot of the same feelings that I’ve had myself for the cases that I’ve worked on.
Michael Schille…:Todd takes a special interest in Mountain Jane Doe’s case, partly because it’s his home turf. He’s from Appalachian Tennessee, a few hours drive from Harlan.
Todd Matthews:With the Harlan County Jane Doe case, the only thing left to do in this case is to get that body out of the ground for DNA collection.
Michael Schille…:Todd goes to the only person who can have her body exhumed, the Harlan County coroner. It takes months to get a court order from a judge. Then finally, one morning in November of 2014, they’re ready to dig up Mountain Jane Doe, 45 years after she went into the ground.

The makeshift cemetery is just a small cluster of graves, scattered on a forested hillside. Four police officers wearing gloves and heavy work boots are pulling up dirt and rocks. A group of investigators watches as debris is shoveled onto a plastic tarp. Mountain Jane Doe’s case is still an active homicide investigation. The detective assigned to the case is …
Det. William Ho…:Detective William Joshua Howard. I’m a Kentucky State police detective, currently assigned to Post 10, which is located here in Harlan, Kentucky.
Michael Schille…:Detective Howard’s police jumpsuit is streaked with mud.
Det. William Ho…:I was assigned the Mountain Jane Doe case probably mid-2014. I’m not strictly a homicide detective. We work all major crimes, violent crimes.
Michael Schille…:There are enormous odds stacked against Detective Howard solving this murder. This case has been cold for decades.
Det. William Ho…:You can’t have a suspect until we figure out who a victim is.
Michael Schille…:And there’s that part: not knowing who she is.
Det. Sgt. Jacki…:As soon as we know who she was, then we can figure out where she’s from, people that she was associated with and hopefully find a motive pretty quick.
Michael Schille…:That’s Detective Sergeant Jackie Pickrell again. She’s here, too. She’s swinging a pick-axe to chop through a tree root that’s grown over the casket.
Det. Sgt. Jacki…:That’s in roots. You want me to get down there and …
Darla Jackson:I would love to see a beautiful intact skull.
Todd Matthews:That would be awesome.
Darla Jackson:That we can recreate.
Michael Schille…:Todd and Darla are here, too, watching from the sidelines.
Det. William Ho…:That’s the problem. [crosstalk] top of it [inaudible].
Michael Schille…:After a few hours of digging, their shovels hit something.
Det. William Ho…:There’s a piece of the casket. [crosstalk] …
Michael Schille…:It’s fragments of a casket that rotted away years ago. Pieces of bone are pulled out one at a time. Eventually they find a skull tightly packed in dirt and clay. They carefully remove it, take some photos, and place it in a cardboard evidence box.
Det. Sgt. Jacki…:All right.
Todd Matthews:That skull’s been … It collapsed a little bit, but you could probably rinse that off easily.
Speaker 15:Yeah, I think a lot of that [inaudible].
Todd Matthews:Good job, man.
Michael Schille…:The remains will be shipped to the University of North Texas in Fort Worth for DNA analysis.
Todd Matthews:And this is the area where they do some of the bone cut.
Michael Schille…:A few months later, we meet up with Todd in Fort Worth. He shows us how remains like Mountain Jane Doe’s are handled.
Todd Matthews:You’ll see it through these windows. Most of them are closed most of the time.
Michael Schille…:It’s bone cut Tuesday. Behind sealed glass we can see technicians extracting DNA. A woman in a lab coat, gloves and mask, cuts into a section of bone with a small electrical saw. The bone is then pulverized and mixed with a chemical in a test tube.
Todd Matthews:It’s quite a complicated process. It’s nothing like you see on CSI. It’s nothing that’s fast and instantaneous. The genetic code is not a barcode. It takes time to go through this process.
Michael Schille…:Once the genetic code is extracted, it’s put into a federal database that has thousands of missing persons cases. Todd Matthews is keeping his fingers crossed that one of those missing people will match with Mountain Jane Doe.
Todd Matthews:It will be either a cold hit, a direct comparison or nothing. Maybe we don’t have a missing person that matches this person in the system yet.
Michael Schille…:But even if there is a match waiting in the system, it can take months or even a year to get DNA results. There’s a backlog because there are too many boxes of bones and not enough scientists.
Todd Matthews:The living victims of missing and unidentified persons case are the families because they’re going through this tragedy every day. You know, a traditional funeral, three days you’re buried, and then you find ways to adapt to your new life. In a missing persons case, it’s like a funeral that goes on for years, sometimes decades.
Michael Schille…:Back in Harlan, it’s been seven months since investigators dug up the skull and bones from the hillside grave. Finally, Darla gets the call from Todd she’s been waiting for.
Todd Matthews:Hello, Darla. How are you?
Darla Jackson:Hey, I’m good. How are you?
Todd Matthews:We do have some news.
Darla Jackson:Okay. Right.
Todd Matthews:I know that you’ve sat by that grave many times.
Darla Jackson:Yes.
Todd Matthews:You’ve even shared a glass of wine and poured it into the grave, and I know that.
Darla Jackson:Yeah.
Todd Matthews:I want to apologize because I couldn’t tell you anything sooner. The remains that were exhumed that day in Harlan County were not the remains of our Harlan County Jane Doe.
Darla Jackson:Oh, no. I’m in shock. I’m terribly disappointed, but I just don’t know what to say. How did it happen? And where is she?
Todd Matthews:Now, there was always a problem [crosstalk] …
Michael Schille…:Investigators thought they were exhuming Mountain Jane Doe, but they dug up the wrong body.
Todd Matthews:… who could be her, but [crosstalk]-
Michael Schille…:The unidentified girl marker was on the wrong grave. I asked Darla how she’s taking the news.
Darla Jackson:It’s never been easy, but it’s never been boring. I got to hand that to the case. Right now, what I’m thinking is to get the right grave, we had to dig up the wrong grave. I know she’s there. She’s in that cemetery and she’s in that area, so now we just have to find her. This is just another step. Now we got to do it again. It’s time to exhume again. She’s there.
Al Letson:She may be there, but will officials find her? And how did they dig up the wrong body in the first place? We’ll go back to the grave site when we return. This is Reveal, from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.
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Al Letson:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. Today we’re unraveling the mystery of Mountain Jane Doe, a story of a young woman who was found stabbed to death on a trail in 1969 and buried without a name. This episode is not for young listeners.

In the fall of 2014, authorities dug up a hillside grave to try and identify her, but they got the wrong body and exhumed a man’s skeleton by accident. Reveal’s Michael Schiller picks up the story in Harlan, Kentucky.
Audio:In 1,000 feet, turn right onto Red Dog Road.
Michael Schille…:The only way to fully understand how they got the wrong body is to visit the Harlan Gas Cemetery, where Mountain Jane Doe is buried. It’s a pretty steep climb up a windy, one lane, dirt road.
Michael Schille…:Oh. We’re stuck.
Michael Schille…:At first, our rental SUV can’t make it up the road. We move some rocks and some sticks and finally get up to the cemetery. It’s just a clearing in the forest on the side of the road. There’s no sign, no gate. Some stone steps go up the hillside. There are small headstones and a few concrete statues of angels. Up the steep hill even further is the area where the unidentified are buried.
Michael Schille…:It’s pretty hard to tell if you’re walking over someones grave or not around here. Doing my best to be respectful and avoid all of the graves.
Michael Schille…:Some graves are marked only with a small rock and there are others that look like they could be graves where the ground is sunken, but they have no markings at all. It’s not like the cemeteries with mowed lawns and fancy headstones. At some point, Mountain Jane Doe’s temporary grave marker got moved. It was just a small aluminum stake that’s easily knocked over or pulled out of the ground. Someone must have put it back on the wrong grave.
Philip Bianchi:There’s always a possibility in the back of my mind that may not be the right grave, simply because of the manner in which the graves were marked with just a temporary grave marker that sticks into the ground.
Michael Schille…:That’s Harlan County coroner, Philip Bianchi. He was in charge of the exhumation in 2014, when they thought they were digging up Mountain Jane Doe.
Philip Bianchi:We started seeing things that day that I questioned, some embalming artifacts that were present. I expected that there would be a body bag or at least remnants of a body bag. We saw no evidence of that as well. Then there was a clip-on tie. The remains we had recovered were most likely those of a unidentified male individual.
Michael Schille…:But the coroner wasn’t ready to walk away. A year after that first dig, in the fall of 2015, they went back again for a second try.
Philip Bianchi:I guess it would end up being about two graves away from the original exhumation. We found evidence of the body bag and things that she would have been placed in, inside the casket, so it was consistent with the description of the original case.
Michael Schille…:On the third grave they opened, the casket matched the picture and the body bag was there. So was a skull, some ribs, femurs. It was almost a complete skeleton. For a second time, the coroner shipped a box of bones to the lab in Texas to get DNA.
Philip Bianchi:It’s a waiting game. I mean, I don’t know anything else that we can do at this particular point in time that’s going to speed it along.
Michael Schille…:Making an identification of a Jane Doe isn’t quick or easy. Here’s how it works: The National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs, has a database. It’s two big lists, really. One is a list of unidentified bodies, Jane and John Does. The other’s a list of people who’ve been reported missing. NamUs tries to match the two. It’s like a raffle. One ticket alone doesn’t do it. You need the other ticket with the matching number. The DNA, fingerprints, and dental profile of the Jane Doe ticket have to match the profile of the family ticket.
Amy Dobbs:We want to reunite families. We want to send them back home. We want to give them their name that they were born with.
Michael Schille…:Amy Dobbs is an investigator for NamUs.
Amy Dobbs:The system had flagged several passible matches based off of height, weight, date.
Michael Schille…:In Mountain Jane Doe’s case, the database flags four missing women who could be a match, women who were about the same age, who disappeared around the same time. Amy’s job is to collect DNA samples from their families.
Amy Dobbs:We want to gather as many relatives as we possibly can to strengthen that DNA profile.
Michael Schille…:To build that profile, Amy goes out into the field to collect DNA. Basically, she drives to peoples homes and asks them to put a Q-tip in their mouth.
Amy Dobbs:It’s called a buccal swab, and we collect dead skin cells from the inside of the mouth.
Michael Schille…:She takes the Q-tip back to the lab where scientists use those skin cells to create the DNA profile. But without Mountain Jane Doe’s DNA in the system, there’s nothing to match it to. For now, the skeleton is sitting on a shelf at the lab in Texas. There’s a backlog of cases that’s months long. Like the coroner said, it’s a waiting game. And then, finally, almost a year after the second exhumation, in September of 2016 …
Audio:Today we finally learn the answer to a question investigators in Harlan County have been asking for almost half a century: “Who is the Mountain Jane Doe?” DNA testing confirms the body is that of Sonja Kaye Blair-Adams.
Audio:Sonja Kaye Blair-Adams disappeared from her home in Letcher County, Kentucky when she was just 21 years old.
Male:Her name was Sonja Kaye Blair-Adams.
Male:Sonja.
Female:Kaye.
Male:Blair-Adams.
Karen Stipes:My mother was Mountain Jane Doe, and her name was Sonja Kaye Blair-Adams.
Michael Schille…:We’re in Karen Stipes’ living room sitting on the couch. She’s a strawberry blonde, just like her mom.
Karen Stipes:People told me she was a good person. She was kind-hearted, and people liked her.
Michael Schille…:We heard from Karen earlier in the show. She’s the one who saw the TV newscast in 2009 and called the number on the bottom of the screen. But when Karen called in, the person who answered told her, no, Mountain Jane Doe couldn’t be her mother.
Karen Stipes:He said she was younger and didn’t have any children; it couldn’t be her.
Michael Schille…:They were wrong, but Karen didn’t give up. With help from her kids in Tennessee, eventually she found out about NamUs. They swabbed Karen and her kids for DNA.
Karen Stipes:NamUs was wonderful. It didn’t cost anything for me or my children that done it. NamUs done all of that.
Michael Schille…:She shared some pictures with us on her laptop.
Karen Stipes:I do have a better picture of her. [crosstalk] …
Michael Schille…:Karen has her mother’s eyes. It’s amazing to see a photo of her after all this time, and it makes it all really sad.
Karen Stipes:There’s nothing ever going to make it good that I didn’t have a mother. I would have love to have had a mother and knowed her. But there’s nothing can bring that back or change it because even my children, they never had a grandmother because of this. It’s actually sad, but I’m glad that she’s identified now.
Michael Schille…:A few days later, Karen makes the long drive to meet the coroner at his funeral home in Harlan. She’s here to take custody of her mother’s remains and she allows us to be there with her.
Karen Stipes:[inaudible] maybe. [crosstalk] …
Michael Schille…:We’re in a small room. There’s a plain cardboard box on a table, the kind you’d use to ship something in the mail. It’s just a few feet long. The coroner opens it with a box cutter. He turns to Karen and he asks her …
Philip Bianchi:You ready for this?
Karen Stipes:Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Michael Schille…:He takes out different sized bundles wrapped in brown packing paper from the box. He places them on a table and unrolls them.
Philip Bianchi:[inaudible].
Karen Stipes:So this would’ve been from her arm maybe.
Philip Bianchi:This one and [crosstalk] …
Michael Schille…:Karen takes her mother’s skull from the brown paper and gently cradles it.
Female:I told my husband, I said “You might think I’m weird, but I just want to touch her bones.”
Philip Bianchi:Unfortunate is what I would [inaudible] that you have to meet.
Female:Bones.
Michael Schille…:Karen wants to have a proper burial for her mother in the coming months. This is where Darla Jackson comes back into the story. I meet up with Darla at the funeral home she owns. She’s the woman who wrote a book about Mountain Jane Doe back in 2009 that got the attention of investigators.
Darla Jackson:Her first burial and service was given to her without her identity, and I thought it would be fitting for her to have a service and funeral as Sonja.
Michael Schille…:I’m with Darla in the parlor room of her funeral home. The place has a classic feel. It’s a hundred years old with dark wood floors and banisters. We’re waiting for Karen to come over to meet Darla for the first time.
Darla Jackson:I wanted to speak with Karen about offering her a funeral. Hopefully, we will plan out a beautiful service for Sonja that is 47 years late.
Michael Schille…:Darla and Karen have been trying to press the two pieces of this puzzle together for so long, the whole time neither knowing the other one was just one county away.
Michael Schille…:Sounds like someone’s trying to come in.
Darla Jackson:Hello. [inaudible]. Hi.
Karen Stipes:[inaudible]. Hi. How you doing?
Darla Jackson:I’m good.
Karen Stipes:You are [inaudible] like to know you.
Darla Jackson:I feel like I know you.
Karen Stipes:Yeah.
Darla Jackson:It is so good to finally get to meet you.
Karen Stipes:You too. Thank you.
Darla Jackson:I’m Darla. You’re Karen.
Karen Stipes:I feel like I know you.
Darla Jackson:Yes.
Karen Stipes:And I appreciate everything you’ve done. I can’t tell you what it means.
Darla Jackson:Well, I am just so happy for you. You don’t know how happy I am that you finally get to learn some things.
Karen Stipes:Yeah.
Darla Jackson:Yes.
Karen Stipes:Yeah, I know. And I appreciate everything you all done because that’s helped me to get here. It did good. Good.
Darla Jackson:Yeah. That’s why I did it. That’s why I did it. So you could-
Karen Stipes:You done it.
Darla Jackson:Thank you.
Karen Stipes:Thank you.
Michael Schille…:Karen wrote a letter to her mother, and she wants this part of it engraved on the tombstone.
Karen Stipes:As a little girl, I remember praying and praying that she would come and get me, so I’m a little … I would’ve never known that I had to come get you.
Darla Jackson:You had to go get your mom.
Al Letson:It was a bittersweet reunion for Karen. Now she knows for sure why her mother never came home and that her mom didn’t leave her; she was taken from her. But it opens up more questions.
Karen Stipes:As far as closure, there’ll be no closure for me until they find who killed her. Because whoever killed her,  they’ve already got away with it for 47 years. I don’t think they need to be getting away with it anymore, and I will never be happy unless they get who done it.
Al Letson:You’re listening to Reveal.
Al Letson:If you like what we do and you want to help, well, it’s pretty simple. Just write us a review on Apple Podcast. It’s easy and only takes a few seconds. Just open the Apple Podcast app on your phone, search for Reveal, then scroll down to where you see Write a Review, and there tell them how much you love the host. Your review makes it easier for listeners to find us, and, well, it really does make a difference. And if you do it, you will get a personal thank-you from me, like right now, like thank, not him, not … You. Yes, you. Thank you so much. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. All right.
Al Letson:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson.
Al Letson:Today we’re telling the story of Mountain Jane Doe, a murder victim who was unidentified for 47 years. In the fall of 2016, she finally got her name back, thanks to a DNA match to her daughter and grandkids. Her name was Sonja Kaye Blair-Adams. She was just 21 years old when she was murdered. The match answered one question for Sonja’s daughter Karen Stipes, but it opened up many more. Reveal’s Michael Schiller joins Karen on a trip back to the place her mom’s body was found on Pine Mountain in Kentucky.
Michael Schille…:We’re up on Little Shepherd’s Trail. It’s on top of a mountain. You can see for miles from up here. Mist swirls through the valley below like a river, swallowing the thick forests of Appalachia. Sonja Kaye was found 50 feet off this one lane dirt and gravel road in 1969.
Karen Stipes:I just always wanted to come and see exactly where her body was found, to see the spot. I don’t know how to tell you how it feels.
Michael Schille…:Karen has never been to the exact place where they found her mother’s body until today. It’s an overcast afternoon in October of 2016. The leaves have mostly turned shades of amber, brown and red.
Karen Stipes:I hope maybe we can mark this spot somehow.
Michael Schille…:The identification of Sonja Kaye Blair-Adams was a surprise to some, but not to Karen Stipes, who already knew with every fiber of her being that Mountain Jane Doe was her mother.
Karen Stipes:Like I had told the coroner, if it had have came back and said that it wasn’t her, I would’ve never believed it. I mean, I just I knew that it was her, and I kept telling them, “I know it’s her.”
Michael Schille…:How did you know?
Karen Stipes:I know you all can cut this stuff, right?
Michael Schille…:Yeah.
Karen Stipes:I didn’t know we was going there right now. I-
Female:We can cut it.
Michael Schille…:Okay. You want to cut?
Michael Schille…:I turn off the recorder and Karen takes a deep breath. Then she tells me how she knew Mountain Jane Doe was her mom. When Karen was a child, her grandmother told her something so awful she didn’t want to say it on tape, but she said we could. Her grandmother told her, “You’re going to grow up to be a whore like your mother, and she ended up naked and stabbed on Little Shepherd’s Trail.” That’s where Mountain Jane Doe was found.
Karen Stipes:My grandmother, she would get upset any time you bring anything up about my mother, so I was scared to bring it up.
Michael Schille…:Mary Rutherford Adams and her husband Dallas were Karen’s grandparents on her father’s side, and they adopted her.
Karen Stipes:I was a little over a year old and my grandparents raised me after my mother had went missing. It wasn’t an easy childhood or an easy life.
Michael Schille…:Karen says that at different times throughout her childhood, her grandma would say those awful words about her mother and the murder. This was 40 years before she was identified through DNA. It raises so many questions. If her grandma knew what happened to Sonja Kaye, why didn’t she contact the police? Did Karen’s grandma know more than she was saying about the murder? And if her grandma knew, did anyone else?
Karen Stipes:You feel like you can’t trust anybody, and you don’t know who knows and who don’t know. It’s a horrible feeling to feel like everybody knows something and nobody will tell you.
Michael Schille…:If someone did know something, they weren’t talking. According to police, no one filed a missing persons report for Sonja Kaye in 1969. She disappeared from Letcher County right next to Harlan. With her living so close why didn’t anyone make the connection? And why didn’t anyone in Letcher County report her missing? Here’s the thing about being unidentified: In her anonymity, Mountain Jane Doe was perfect, angelic, but in reality Sonja Kaye’s life was more complicated.

We found her divorce papers in the Kentucky State Archives that tell part of her story. It’s a public record and a snapshot of a turbulent time towards the end of her life. In 1967, Sonja Kaye married a guy named Roy Adams. About a year later, Roy went into the army. While Roy was in the military, Sonja Kaye left him for his brother, James. Sonja Kaye and James had a baby together. that’s Karen. About a year later, Sonja Kaye was murdered.
Michael Schille…:Was Roy ever a suspect in the crime?
Det. William Ho…:I don’t know if we could say Roy’s a suspect.
Michael Schille…:Sonja Kaye’s ex-husband, Roy, still lives in Letcher County. He wouldn’t speak with us, but he did speak with Detective Howard from the Kentucky State Police.
Det. William Ho…:I think in any case, any murder case for sure, any family members that would have been in contact would be looked at and asked questions to rule them out as being a suspect.
Michael Schille…:We filed for Roy’s military release paperwork, his DD-214. We found out that Roy went to Vietnam a month after the divorce. At the time of the murder, he was thousands of miles away. Roy didn’t return phone messages, and his wife hung up on me. We never got to speak with his brother James either.
Det. William Ho…:So unfortunately, as I’ve learned that James has since passed away within the last couple of days, so …
Michael Schille…:Wow. James was the last person we know of who lived with Sonja Kaye, and he might’ve had information about where she went or who saw her last. James died right before we got to Harlan in October of 2016. He had been sick for a while, and not long after the identification of Sonja Kaye, he left town. He went out of state to stay with relatives.
Michael Schille…:Was James ever considered to be a suspect or a person of interest in the case?
Det. William Ho…:I don’t think that we could ever say that Roy or James either one was a suspect. So I think James had information that would be beneficial to the case, yes. Do I think he’s a killer? I’m unable to say that because I never had a chance to talk to him.
Michael Schille…:Karen Stipes had been trying to get Detective Howard to interview James Adams since the identification. She said she gave him phone numbers and addresses where they could find James, but police never spoke with him. This is a phone call between Karen and Detective Howard, a few days after James died.
Karen Stipes:You said that you all had all of the evidence in the case. That’s what got in my head thinking that maybe once I got it proved that it was her, you all might have evidence to go get whoever.
Michael Schille…:Karen’s talking about evidence from the crime scene in 1969: a restaurant receipt from Cincinnati and a piece of a man’s sweater. They’re gone. So is the opportunity to reach James Adams.
Det. William Ho…:Here’s my feelings of it. I have nothing but try to cater to you for a year and half and go the extra mile to try to solve something for you, and all it is, is turned around on me because you feel I’ve lied to you and haven’t done enough.
Karen Stipes:No, Josh. That is not the case at all. I have done everything I can for you. There’s been times that you wouldn’t even answer me a long time ago. You didn’t even bother to call me back or anything. And I have kept after this for two years and something.
Det. William Ho…:I work murder cases last.
Karen Stipes:I understand that you have other stuff to do, and I feel bad about it. I wanted to help change that. I want you to have more police officers. But you can use this case to change the way things are done so that other people don’t have to go through this. You’re just pissed because I called and asked for the Chief Of Police. I didn’t say nothing hateful to you. I was just trying to ask.
Det. William Ho…:Oh, you’re saying everything’s great, Josh.
Karen Stipes:And that’s okay, Josh. I’m done.
Michael Schille…:Do you think there’s any chance that this will end with an arrest or prosecution?
Det. William Ho…:I think there’s a possibility, and I’m that kind of guy, so I’m not going to give up. That’s what I told Ms. Stipes. I know she wants somebody to be held responsible as much as I do, and I’m that kind of guy that says, “Hey, I’m going to put a hundred percent effort to try to prove that.” Do I think that it’s possible? It’s very possible. Do I think it’s going to be a hard task? Probably the hardest task I’ve ever attempted.
Michael Schille…:Undeniably it’s a hard task, and making the identification wasn’t easy either. It took 47 years for the state police, but they solved that mystery. Their murder investigation, on the other hand, hasn’t gone anywhere. They have no suspects and there are other issues.

The evidence from the crime scene is missing. There was a restaurant receipt and part of a man’s sweater found at the crime scene. It’s mentioned in the local paper from 1969. But Detective Howard says they’re not in his case file, and he’s not sure they ever existed.

Missing evidence, missed opportunities, all of this is frustrating for Karen Stipes, but she isn’t giving up on trying to piece together her mother’s story and her own. She hoped her adoption papers would hold some answers, so she filed for them and sent them to me.
Michael Schille…:So it’s from the Circuit Court Clerk, Letcher County District Courts.
Michael Schille…:This is Karen’s grandparents’ statement to the court. They’re asking for custody of Karen. “The birth mother abandoned the child in the custody of the grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. Dallas Adams. That prior to May 8th, 1969, the mother of the child, Sonja Kaye Adams, has contributed nothing to the child’s support and maintenance. That prior to said date, she abandoned her child, Karen Kaye Adams, in the custody of petitioners. And such abandonment and desertion [crosstalk] … “
Michael Schille…:Karen’s grandparents filed for adoption May 8, 1969.
Michael Schille…:” … has continuously refused [crosstalk] … “
Michael Schille…:Sonja Kaye’s body was found June 2, 1969.
Michael Schille…:” … child is now a neglected and [crosstalk] … “
Michael Schille…:The coroner said she had been up there around three weeks. The grandparents filed for adoption within days of Sonja Kaye’s murder. This is the same grandma that told Karen all those years ago that her mother was Mountain Jane Doe.
Michael Schille…:Okay, so here’s the part where I tell you we didn’t solve the murder, that we can’t prove who killed Sonja Kaye Blair-Adams. We tried. We followed leads around the country and have a short list of people who could’ve done it, might have done it. But we can’t rely on hearsay or an anonymous jailhouse snitch or a psychic vision to base our reporting on.

And so many people connected to this case who might’ve known something have passed away, like Karen’s grandma, Mary Rutherford Adams. She died a long time ago. And whatever she knew about Sonja Kaye for all those years, we’ll never know. It took some dogged investigators, a unique government database, and the science of DNA to reveal the truth about Sonja Kaye’s identity and confirm what Karen Stipes knew all along.
Karen Stipes:It just kills me to think about her being down there all this time unidentified, and that’s why I’m happy that she’s identified and I hope, and I think we will be able to, I hope we give her the most honorable funeral ever. I want to get her a nice stone and everything, and I hope she would be proud.
Speaker 21:Take this opportunity to thank [crosstalk] …
Michael Schille…:It’s a humid, overcast day in late July of 2017. The pews are nearly full inside the chapel of Mount Pleasant Funeral Home in downtown Harlan. They’re here to pay their respects to Sonja Kaye Blair-Adams.
Speaker 21:… bow your heads, please.
Michael Schille…:A preacher stands at the podium.
Speaker 21:Our Father in heaven, we come before you today just asking for your goodness and your blessings to be outpoured on this service today, dear God. [crosstalk] …
Michael Schille…:Karen greets the small crowd.
Karen Stipes:My family and I, first of all, want to thank everyone for coming today.
Michael Schille…:She unrolls a sheet of paper and reads from it.
Karen Stipes:I think it’s so amazing that so many strangers and people from everywheres can be working on the same thing, and we finally all got together. I think it’s going to bring good things for the future, and maybe my mother’s murder won’t be so in vain.
Michael Schille…:It’s a somber moment, but there’s some redemption in all of this. It’s a funeral that’s 47 years in the making.
Al Letson:Our show was edited by Taki Telonidis and produced by Michael I. Schiller. This story came out of an original investigation by reporter GW Schulz and story editor Fernando Diaz, with additional reporting and production support from Scott Anger, Rachel de Leon, Emmanuel Martinez, Mike Cory, and Michael Montgomery. The sound design was done by the Justice League, my man, J Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs, and Claire C-Note Mullin with help from Katherine Raymundo and Fernando, my man, yo, Arruda. Victoria Baranetsky is our general counsel. Our production manager’s Amy Mostafa. Our digital producer is Sarah Mirk. Our interim CEO is Annie Chabel. Our interim editor in chief is Sumi Aggarwal. Our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by Comorado, Lightning.

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the Democracy Fund and the Inasmuch Foundation.

Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I’m Al Letson, and remember, there is always more to the story.
Audio:From PRX.

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.

Michael I Schiller

Michael I Schiller is a senior reporter and producer for Reveal. His Emmy Award-winning work spans animation, radio and documentary film.

“The Dead Unknown,” a video series he directed about the crisis of America's unidentified dead, earned a national News and Documentary Emmy Award, national Edward R. Murrow Award and national Society of Professional Journalists Sigma Delta Chi Award.

His 2015 animated documentary short film “The Box,” about youth solitary confinement, was honored with a video journalism award from the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California chapter, a San Francisco International Film Festival Golden Gate Award and a New Orleans Film Festival special jury prize, and it was nominated for a national News and Documentary Emmy for new approaches.

Schiller was one the producers of the pilot episode of the Peabody Award-winning Reveal radio show and podcast. He continues to regularly produce audio documentaries for the weekly public radio show, which airs on over 450 stations nationwide. Schiller is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Michael Montgomery

Michael Montgomery is a senior reporter and producer for Reveal. He reports on the criminal justice system, vulnerable populations, and the underground economy. Montgomery has led collaborations with the Associated Press, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, Frontline, KQED and others. After completing a Fulbright fellowship in Eastern Europe, Montgomery covered the fall of communism and wars in former Yugoslavia for The Daily Telegraph and Los Angeles Times. He also worked as an associate producer for "60 Minutes" correspondent Ed Bradley and was a senior reporter for American RadioWorks. His investigations into human rights abuses in the Balkans led to the arrest and conviction of Serbian and Albanian paramilitaries and the creation of a new war crimes court in The Hague. As a reporter and producer, Montgomery has garnered national and international prizes, including an Overseas Press Club Award, Investigative Reporters and Editors Certificate, Edward R. Murrow Award, Peabody Award and Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University gold and silver batons. Montgomery is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Taki Telonidis is the senior supervising editor for Reveal. Previously, he was the media producer for the Western Folklife Center, where he created more than 100 radio features for NPR’s "All Things Considered," "Weekend Edition" and other news magazines. He has produced and directed three public television specials, including "Healing the Warrior’s Heart," a one-hour documentary that explores how the ancient spiritual traditions of our nation’s first warriors, Native Americans, are helping today’s veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Telonidis also was senior content editor for NPR’s "State of the Re:Union." Before moving to the West, he worked for NPR in Washington, where he was senior producer of "Weekend All Things Considered" between 1994 and 1998. His television and radio work has garnered a George Foster Peabody Award, three Rocky Mountain Emmy Awards and the Overseas Press Club Award for breaking news. Telonidis is based in Salt Lake City.

Rachel de Leon is a reporter and  producer for TV and documentaries for Reveal. De Leon has worked in video for more than 10 years as a videographer and producer. Throughout 2017, she was the coordinating producer for Glassbreaker Films – an initiative from The Center for Investigative Reporting to support female filmmakers – helping to produce five half-hour documentaries for national and festival distribution, and more than 20 online minidocumentaries. In 2016, she won two Emmys for her work on the web series "The Dead Unknown" and the PBS NewsHour segment "Deadly Oil Fields." In 2014, she completed her first short documentary, “Cab City,” for her master’s thesis in the documentary program at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. De Leon is based in Reveal’s Emeryville, California, office.

Amy Mostafa is the production manager for Reveal. She is pursuing a master's degree in journalism with a focus on audio and data at the University of California, Berkeley, where she is a Dean’s Merit Fellow and an Islamic Scholarship Fund scholar. She has reported on science, health and the environment in Anchorage for Alaska Public Media and on city government in Berkeley and San Francisco for KQED. Her work also has appeared on KALW and KALX.  Mostafa holds a bachelor's degree in English literature and public policy. She is based in Reveal’s Emeryville, California, office. 

Jim Briggs III is the senior sound designer, engineer and composer for Reveal. He supervises post-production and composes original music for the public radio show and podcast. He also leads Reveal's efforts in composition for data sonification and live performances.

Prior to joining Reveal in 2014, Briggs mixed and recorded for clients such as WNYC Studios, NPR, the CBC and American Public Media. Credits include “Marketplace,” “Selected Shorts,” “Death, Sex & Money,” “The Longest Shortest Time,” NPR’s “Ask Me Another,” “Radiolab,” “Freakonomics Radio” and “Soundcheck.” He also was the sound re-recording mixer and sound editor for several PBS television documentaries, including “American Experience: Walt Whitman,” the 2012 Tea Party documentary "Town Hall" and “The Supreme Court” miniseries. His music credits include albums by R.E.M., Paul Simon and Kelly Clarkson.

Briggs' work with Reveal has been recognized with an Emmy Award (2016) and two Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards (2018, 2019). Previously, he was part of the team that won the Dart Award for Excellence in Coverage of Trauma for its work on WNYC’s hourlong documentary special “Living 9/11.” He has taught sound, radio and music production at The New School and Eugene Lang College and has a master's degree in media studies from The New School. Briggs is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Fernando Arruda

Fernando Arruda is the sound designer, engineer and composer for Reveal. A composer and multi-instrumentalist, he contributes to the scoring, recording, editing and mixing of the weekly public radio show and podcast. Prior to joining Reveal, Arruda toured as an international DJ and taught music technology at Dubspot and ESRA International Film School. He co-founded a film scoring boutique called Manhattan Composers Collective and worked at Antfood, a creative audio studio geared toward media and ad spots. Arruda worked with clients such as Marvel and Samsung and ad agencies such as Framestore, Trollbäck + Company, Buck and Vice. Arruda releases experimental music under the alias FJAZZ and has performed with many jazz, classical and pop ensembles such as Krychek, Dark Inc., the New York Arabic Orchestra and Art&Sax. His credits in the podcast and radio world include NPR’s “51 percent,” WNYC’s “Bad Feminist Happy Hour” and its live broadcast of Orson Welles’ “The Hitchhiker.” Arruda has scored extensively for theatrical, orchestral and chamber music formats, some of which have premiered worldwide. He holds a master’s degree in film scoring and composition from NYU Steinhardt. Arruda is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Kevin Sullivan is the executive producer of Reveal’s public radio show and podcast. He joined Reveal from the daily news magazine show “Here & Now,” where he was senior managing editor. There, he helped lead the expansion of the show as part of a unique partnership between NPR and WBUR. Prior to radio, Sullivan worked as a documentary film producer. That work took him around the world, with stories ranging from reconciliation in Northern Ireland to the refugee crisis during the war in Kosovo.

Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Sullivan launched an investigative unit for CBS in Baltimore, where he spearheaded investigations on bioterrorism and the U.S. government’s ability to respond to future threats. He also dug into local issues. His exposé of local judges found widespread lax sentencing of repeat-offender drunken drivers. Other investigations included sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests, and doctors who sold OxyContin for cash. Sullivan has won multiple journalism awards, including several Edward R. Murrow awards, a Third Coast / Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Competition award and an Emmy. He has an MBA from Boston University.

Sullivan is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Al Letson is a playwright, performer, screenwriter, journalist, and the host of Reveal. Soul-stirring, interdisciplinary work has garnered Letson national recognition and devoted fans.