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This episode originally was broadcast April 1, 2017. We updated this show Jan. 13, 2018.
UPDATE, Jan. 26, 2019:
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 12,000 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.
The 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.
Produced by Michael I Schiller. Edited by Taki Telonidis.
Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The John S. And James L. Knight Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.
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.
Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson.
Al Letson: The people of Harlan, Kentucky remember the unidentified woman who was brutally murdered in the summer of 1969.
Darla Jackson: The body of a young girl was found on Little Shepherd Trail, she had been stabbed in the chest multiple times.
Al Letson: They called her “Mountain Jane Doe.”
Darla Jackson: She could not speak for herself, and no one was speaking for her. I wanted people to remember her, and she deserved a voice, so I spoke for her.
Al Letson: [00:00:30] Darla Jackson grew up in Harlan, and she was determined to figure out who the girl was. Her determination eventually led the police to a hillside grave.
Speaker 3: Here’s the place with the casket.
Al Letson: And turned a “Who is it?” into a “Who done it?”
Speaker 4: You know, I think people know something. I think somebody knows something.
Al Letson: That’s today on Reveal.
Speaker 5: [00:01:00] Support for Reveal comes from the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies at Maine College of Art, now offering a Graduate Certificate in Documentary Studies. This in-depth, 15-week experience is for motivated students who are interested in pursuing the world of documentary storytelling. Students choose from four tracks of study: Radio, Photography, Short Documentary Film, and Writing. Professional storytellers are in high demand, and Salt will prepare you with the skills, ideas and confidence needed to work in the field. To learn more and apply, visit MECA.EDU/Salt. Mention the code: PRX, and have your application fee waived.
Speaker 5: [00:01:30] Support for Reveal also comes from Audible, presenting Sincerely X, a ten-part audio series from TED that shines a light on stories so personal they can only be shared in secret. TED’s mission is to let great ideas spread, and now they’ve teamed up with Audible Originals to provide a space to tell incredible, inspiring stories outside of the TED spotlight. From life-saving rituals to radical business strategies to the true impact of burnout, you’ll hear ideas that may change the way you think. To listen, go to Audible.com/sincerelyx. Audible and Amazon Prime members listen free.
Al Letson: [00:02:00] From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson.
Al Letson: [00:02:30] Karen Stipes was around a year old when her mother went missing.
Karen Stipes: You know, I had to suffer through my whole life because of whatever happened, you know, with my mother. I wish that someone would tell me. You know, let me know what happened.
Al Letson: Les Rugg son disappeared on a fishing trip.
Les Rugg: My son, Kyle Rugg, is 20 years old. He disappeared on a Wednesday, March the 4th, 2015.
Al Letson: [00:03:00] Alice Almandaris’ father went missing in Houston. His regular phone calls to his daughter just stopped cold.
Alice A.: My dad was reported missing end of June 2002.
Al Letson: People vanish. Right now around 80,000 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 A.: There’s no way to describe what it feels like to not know where someone is, or what happened to him. The worst part about it is not knowing.
Al Letson: [00:03:30] Unfortunately, some of those missing people will never come home, like Alice’s dad. His body was unidentified for 10 years and 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.
Al Letson: We did a show back in 2015 about Jane and John Does and the families they leave behind. We found that there are no national laws requiring coroners or police to enter unidentified cases into a national database that could help send them home. And the problem is growing. When we started looking at this there were 10,000 unidentified bodies in a national database. Today, there are more than 12,000. Some are being stored in a morgue, others have been buried in public cemeteries without a name. Everyone of those people had a life, a story to tell.
Al Letson: [00:04:00] On this episode, we’re going back to one of those stories we followed closely and reported on in 2015. A murder victim whose body was found on a mountain trail in Kentucky in 1969. Before we get started, a quick heads up. A lot of our 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 Harland, Kentucky.
Michael S.: [00:04:30] We’re driving through southeastern Kentucky, it’s deep in coal country, near the Virginia border. We’re headed to Harland, 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 Shepherds Trail, a single-lane mountaintop road that stretches for 40 miles, snaking along the top of a ridge.
Michael S.: [00:05:00] 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: [00:05:30] On Little Shepherd Trail, the body of a young woman was discovered by a man who was picking flowers for his wife.
Michael S.: That’s Darla Jackson.
Darla Jackson: I was born May 25th, 1969. It’s possible she was murdered on the day I was born.
Michael S.: Darla’s a former Ms. Harland County with a winning smile and bright green eyes. She’s also an author and amateur historian who has been researching this story for years.
Darla Jackson: You don’t happen upon Little Shepherd Trail, you go to Little Shepherd Trail.
Michael S.: [00:06:00] 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: [00:06:30] Her face was completely gone. All you could see was the skull.
Michael S.: 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 S.: [00:07:00] 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 S.: [00:07:30] 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, 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, you know, to find this girl, like that, murdered up on this trail. Everyone was wondering, you know, “What’s going on? What happened to her? Why is she here? Where’d she come from?”
Michael S.: [00:08:00] 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 Mayhan, 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 Mayhan: [00:08:30] It still stays with me. I pray a lot over this, hoping that she can be identified, and may the killer be identified also.
Michael S.: Joe held a funeral service for “Mountain Jane Doe;” he even paid for the casket himself.
Joe Mayhan: 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 S.: [00:09:00] 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.”
Jackie Pickroll: This is a case that I have heard about since I was little.
Michael S.: Jackie Pickroll is from Harland, she’s with the Kentucky State Police.
Jackie Pickroll: [00:09:30] 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 S.: “Mountain Jane Doe’s” case was passed down from one detective to the next for decades. Retired state police detective, Ken Kryder, tried to solve it in the early 90’s.
Ken Kryder: 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.
PART 1 OF 5 ENDS [00:10:04]
Reporter: 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.
Reporter: That’s Darla Jackson again.
Darla Jackson: I’d gotten married. I’d had a child. I was raising a family. This young girl that was found murdered in ’69 was not even a memory really, at the time.
Reporter: [00:10:30] 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.
Reporter: 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.”
Reporter: [00:11:00] 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.
Reporter: [00:11:30] 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. It was a very detailed description. He said, “I started to sit up. I put my legs on the side of the bed. When I did, she disappeared.”
Reporter: [00:12:00] 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.”
Reporter: [00:12:30] Did you ever suspect your brother had any involvement or knowledge?
Loretta Martin: Yes I did. I’d ask him. Absolutely. I said, “Now, you could end up in prison.” I said, “You will be the first suspect.”
Reporter: 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: [00:13:00] 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.
Reporter: 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.
Reporter: Darla and her aunt both say they reported what Uncle James told them to the police. I checked with the Kentucky State Police. 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: [00:13:30] I have lost many nights’ sleep over this case and this girl in the past 15 years.
Reporter: [00:14:00] 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.
Reporter: 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. Engraved in white letters, it says unidentified girl, burial June 5th, 1969.
Darla Jackson: [00:14:30] She could not speak for herself and no one was speaking for her. I wanted people to remember her. She deserved a voice. I spoke for her.
Reporter: Darla wrote a book about Mountain Jane Doe, based on her uncle’s visions. In 2009, she got the attention of local TV news.
News Anchor: [00:15:00] 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.
Reporter: 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: [00:15:30] 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.
Reporter: 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.
News Anchor: [00:16:00] Nearly 40 years later, it’s still not known who she was, where she came from, and who killed her.
Reporter: 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.
Reporter: Todd 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.
Reporter: Todd’s got hair that’s long in the back and feathered on the sides, and a thick groomed mustache. He runs the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NMUS, the program that works to identify John and Jane Does. Over the years, NMUS has solved more than 500 of these cases.
Todd Matthews: [00:16:30] I found out about the 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: [00:17:00] Okay, here we go. Five, four, three, two, one.
Reporter: After Darla’s book is published, Todd invited 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: 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 an injustice. Unidentified girl, killer never brought to justice. Just simply forgotten on the side of a hill in Harlan County.
Todd Matthews: [00:17:30] I saw a lot of the same feelings that I’ve had myself for the cases that I’ve worked on.
Reporter: 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.
Reporter: 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.
Reporter: [00:18:00] 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. These days, the detective assigned to the case is-
Detective H.: Detective William Joshua Howard. I’m a Kentucky State police detective, currently assigned [post hee-an 00:18:56], which is located here in Harlan, Kentucky.
Reporter: [00:18:30] Detective Howard’s police jumpsuit is streaked with mud.
Detective H.: [00:19:00] 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.
Reporter: There are enormous odds stacked against Detective Howard solving this murder. This case has been cold for decades.
Detective H.: You can’t have a suspect until we figure out who the victim is.
Reporter: And there’s that part. Not knowing who she is.
Detective P.: 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.
Reporter: [00:19:30] That’s Detective Sergeant Jackie Pickerell again. She’s here, too. She’s swinging a pick-ax to chop at a tree root that’s grown over the casket.
Detective P.: I would love to see a beautiful intact skull.
Todd Matthews: That would be awesome.
Detective P.: That we can recreate.
Reporter: Todd and Darla are here, too, watching from the sidelines. After a few hours of digging, their shovels hit something.
Detective H.: [00:20:00] There’s a.
PART 2 OF 5 ENDS [00:20:04]
Al Letson: After a few hours of digging, their shovels hit something.
Todd Matthews: There’s a place of the casket.
Al Letson: It’s fragments of the casket that rotted away years ago. Pieces of bone are pulled out one at a time. Eventually they find skull tightly packed in dirt and clay. They carefully remove it, take some photos, and place it in a cardboard evidence box.
Todd Matthews: That skulls been collapsed a little bit, but you could probably rinse that off easily.
Speaker 3: [inaudible 00:20:29]
Todd Matthews: [00:20:30] Good job, man.
Al Letson: The remains will be shipped to the University of North Texas in Fort Worth. That’s where NamUs is based. Together with the Center for Human Identification.
Todd Matthews: And this is where they do some of the bone cut. The DNA lab.
Al Letson: 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.
Al Letson: 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 the small electrical saw. The bone is then pulverized and mixed with a chemical in a test tube.
Todd Matthews: [00:21:00] 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.
Al Letson: Once the genetic code is extracted, it’s put into a federal data base 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: [00:21:30] 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.
Al Letson: 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 back log because there are too many boxes of bones, and not enough scientists.
Todd Matthews: [00:22:00] 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.
Al Letson: 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: [00:22:30] Hello Darla. How are you?
Darla: Hey. I’m good. How are you?
Todd Matthews: We do have some news.
Darla: Okay. Right.
Todd Matthews: I know that you’ve sat by that grave many times.
Todd Matthews: You’ve even shared a glass of wine and poured it into the grave, and I know that.
Todd Matthews: And I want to apologize because I couldn’t tell you anything sooner. The remains that were exhumed that day in Harland County were not the remains of our Harlan County Jane Doe.
Darla: [00:23:00] 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: Well there was always talk …
Al Letson: Investigators thought they were exhuming Mountain Jane Doe, but they dug up the wrong body. The unidentified girl marker was on the wrong grave. I asked Darla how she’s taking the news.
Darla: It’s never been easy, but it’s never been boring. I gotta 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 gotta do it again. It’s time to exhume again. She’s there.
Al Letson: [00:24:00] 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.
Al Letson: [00:24:30] From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson.
Al Letson: Today, we are unraveling the mystery of Mountain Jane Doe. The story of a young woman, who was found stabbed to death on a trail in 1969, and buried without a name. It’s not for young listeners.
Al Letson: Now two years ago, authorities dug up a hillside grave to try to identify her, but they got the wrong body, and exhumed man’s skeleton by accident. Reveals Michael Schiller picks up the story in Harlan, Kentucky.
GPS: [00:25:00] In 1,000 feet, turn right onto Way Dock Road.
Al Letson: 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 S.: Oh, and we’re stuck.
Al Letson: [00:25:30] 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 S.: [00:26:00] It’s pretty hard to tell if you’re walking over someones grave or not up here. Doing my best to be respectful and avoid all of the graves.
Al Letson: 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: [00:26:30] There’s always a possibility in the back of my mind that it may not be the right grave. Simply because of the matter in which the graves were marked, with just a temporary grave marker that sticks into the ground.
Al Letson: 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: [00:27:00] We started seeing things that day that I questioned. Some embalming artifacts that were present. I expected 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.
Al Letson: 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: [00:27:30] I guess it would end up being about two graves away from the original exhumation. And 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.
Al Letson: On the third grave they opened, the casket matched the picture, and the body bag was there. So it was a skull, some ribs, femurs. It was almost complete skeleton. For a second time, the coroner shipped a box of bone to the lab in Texas to get DNA.
Philip Bianchi: [00:28:00] It’s a waiting game. I mean, it’s … I don’t know anything else that we can do at this particular point in time, that’s going to speed it along.
Al Letson: 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 Doe’s. 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: [00:29:00] We want to reunite families. We want to send them back home. We want to give them their name that they were born with.
Al Letson: Amy Dobbs is an investigator for NamUs.
Amy Dobbs: So, the system had flagged several passible matches based off of height, weight, date.
Al Letson: 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.
Al Letson: 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: [00:29:30] It’s called a buccal swab, and we collect dead skin cells from the inside of the mouth.
Al Letson: 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. And for now, the skeleton is sitting on a shelf at the lab in Texas. There’s a back log of cases that’s months long. Like the coroner said, it’s a waiting game.
PART 3 OF 5 ENDS [00:30:04]
Schiller: Like the coroner said, “It’s a waiting game.” And then finally, almost a year after the second exhumation, in September of 2016 …
Speaker 2: “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.”
Speaker 3: “Sonja Kaye Blair-Adams disappeared from her home in Letcher County, Kentucky when she was just 21 years old.”
Speaker 4: [00:30:30] Her name was Sonja Kaye Blair-Adams.
Speaker 5: Sonja.
Speaker 6: Kaye.
Speaker 7: Blair-Adams.
Karen Stipes: My mother was “Mountain Jane Doe” and her name was Sonja Kaye Blair-Adams.
Schiller: 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 you know, people liked her.
Schiller: [00:31:00] 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.
Schiller: 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: [00:31:30] NamUs was wonderful. It didn’t cost anything for me or my children that done it. NamUs done all of that.
Schiller: She shared some pictures with us on her laptop.
Karen Stipes: So, I do have a better picture of her.
Schiller: 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 gonna make it good that I didn’t have a mother, you know. I would love to have had a mother and knowed her. But there’s nothing that can bring that back or change it ’cause you know even my children, they never had a grandmother, because of this. It’s actually sad, you know, but, I’m glad that she’s identified now.
Schiller: [00:32:00] 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 00:32:30]
Schiller: [00:32:30] 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 is with a box cutter. He turns to Karen and he asks her-
Coroner: You ready for-
Karen Stipes: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Schiller: He takes out different sized bundles wrapped in brown packing paper from the box. He places them on a table and unrolls them.
Karen Stipes: [00:33:00] So, this woulda been from her arm maybe.
Coroner: This one and that- [crosstalk 00:33:07]
Schiller: [crosstalk 00:33:07] Karen takes her mother’s skull from the brown paper and gently cradles it.
Karen Stipes: I told my husband, I said “You might think I’m weird but I just wanna touch her bones, you know.”
Coroner: Unfortunate is what I would [inaudible 00:33:19]
Karen Stipes: Bones.
Schiller: 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: [00:33:30] 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.
Schiller: 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: [00:34:00] 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.
Schiller: [00:34:30] 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.
Schiller: Sounds like someone’s trying to come in.
Darla jackson: Hello? … Hi [crosstalk 00:34:57]
Karen Stipes: [crosstalk 00:34:58] Hi. How are you?
Darla jackson: I’m good. You-
Karen Stipes: [00:35:00] I feel like I know you.
Darla jackson: I feel like I know you. It is so good to finally get to meet you. [crosstalk 00:35:07]
Karen Stipes: [crosstalk 00:35:07] You too. Thank you.
Darla jackson: And I’m Darla.
Karen Stipes: I know.
Darla jackson: You’re Karen.
Karen Stipes: I feel like I know you.
Darla jackson: Yes, yes.
Karen Stipes: And I appreciate everything you’ve done [crosstalk 00:35:15]
Darla jackson: [crosstalk 00:35:15] Well-
Karen Stipes: [crosstalk 00:35:16] I can’t tell you what it means.
Darla jackson: Well, I’m 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, you know, that’s helped me to get here. It did good, good … it did.
Darla jackson: That’s why I did it. That’s why I did it so you could- [crosstalk 00:35:43]
Karen Stipes: [00:35:30] You done good.
Darla jackson: Thank you, thank you.
Schiller: 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. [inaudible 00:36:04] I would’ve never known that I had to come get you.”
Darla jackson: [00:36:00] 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: [00:36:30] As far as closure, there’ll be no closure for me until they find who killed her. ‘Cause whoever killed her, you know, they 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.
Speaker 8: Today’s show is sponsored by Talkspace, the online therapy company. For as little as 32 dollars a week, you can work with an experienced, licensed therapist, hand-picked, just for you. On Talk Space, you can send text, audio, and video messages to your therapist and talk about your life or just work on feeling a little bit happier. To sign up or learn more, go to Talkspace.com/Reveal. And to show your support for this podcast, use code “Reveal” to get 30 dollars off your first month. That’s code “Reveal” at Talkspace.com/Reveal.
Al Letson: [00:37:30] From The Center for Investigative reporting in PRX, this is Reveal, I’m 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.
Schiller: [00:38:00] We’re up on Little Shepherd’s Trail, it’s on top of the 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 back in 1969.
Karen Stipes: [00:38:30] I just always wanted to come and see exactly where her body was found, you know, to see the spot. I don’t know how to tell you how it feels.
Schiller: [00:39:00] Karen has never been to the exact Place where they found her mother’s body until today. It’s an overcast afternoon in October, 2016. The leaves have mostly turned shades of amber, brown, and red.
Karen Stipes: I hope maybe we can mark this spot somehow.
Schiller: [00:39:30] 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 came back and said that it wasn’t her, I would’ve never believed it. You know, I mean, I just I knew that it was her. And I kept telling ’em, “I know it’s her,” you know?
Schiller: How did you know?
Karen Stipes: I know you all can cut this stuff right?
Schiller: [00:40:00] Yeah.
PART 4 OF 5 ENDS [00:40:04]
Speaker 1: No, you all can cut this stuff, right?
Speaker 2: Yeah
Speaker 1: I didn’t know we was going there right now, I …
Speaker 2: Okay
Speaker 3: We can cut it.
Speaker 2: You want to cut?
Narrator : I turned 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 gonna grow up to be a whore like your mother.” And she ended up naked and stabbed on Little Shepard’s Trail. That’s where Mountain Jane Doe was found.
Speaker 1: [00:40:30] My grandmother, she would get upset any time you bring anything up about my mother. So I was scared to bring it up.
Narrator : Mary Rutherford Adams and her husband Dallas were Karen’s grandparents on her father’s side, and they adopted her.
Speaker 1: [00:41:00] 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.
Narrator : 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?
Speaker 1: [00:41:30] 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.
Narrator : 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 was more complicated.
Narrator : [00:42:00] We found her divorce papers in the Kentucky State Archives that tell part of her story. It’s a public record and a snap shot 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.
Speaker 2: [00:43:00] Was Roy ever a suspect in the crime?
Speaker 4: I don’t know if we could say Roy’s a suspect.
Narrator : 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.
Speaker 4: 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.
Narrator : 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. And we never got to speak with his brother James either.
Speaker 4: [00:43:30] So unfortunately, as I’ve learned that James has since passed away within the last couple of days, so …
Speaker 2: Wow
Narrator : James was the last person we know of who lived with Sonja Kaye, and he might have had information about where she went or 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.
Speaker 2: [00:44:00] Was James ever considered to be a suspect or person of interest in the case?
Speaker 4: 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 don’t-I’m unable to say that cause I never had a chance to talk to him.
Narrator : [00:44:30] 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.
Speaker 1: [00:45:00] 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 …
Narrator : 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.
Speaker 4: Here’s my feelings though, okay. 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 I haven’t done enough.
Speaker 1: [00:45:30] 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 …
Speaker 4: I work …
Speaker 1: Two years and something.
Speaker 4: Murder cases last …
Speaker 1: And I understand that you have other stuff do and I feel bad about it and 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. And you’re just pissed because I called and asked for the Chief Of Police. I didn’t say nothing hateful to you …
Speaker 4: No, you’re saying [crosstalk 00:46:13] …
Speaker 1: [00:46:00] I was just tying to ask… And that’s okay Josh, I’m done.
Speaker 2: Do you think there’s any chance that this will end with an arrest or prosecution?
Speaker 4: [00:46:30] I think there’s a possibility and I’m that kind of guy, I’m not gonna give up. And 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 gonna 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 gonna be a hard task? Probably one of the hardest tasks I’ve ever attempted.
Narrator : [00:47:00] 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 there not in his case file, and he’s not sure they ever existed.
Narrator : [00:47:30] Right now if you go to the Kentucky State Police website, they have a list of cold cases. Unsolved murders in Harlan County. Sonja Kaye Blair-Adams isn’t on it. 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.
Speaker 2: [00:48:00] So it’s from the Circuit Court Clerk, Letcher County District Courts.
Narrator : [00:48:30] This is Karen’s grandparents statement to the court. They’re asking for custody of Karen.
Speaker 2: 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 the child’s support and maintenance. That prior to set date, she abandoned her child, Karen Kaye Adams, in the custody of petitioners. And such abandonment and desertion has …
Narrator : Karen’s grandparents filed for adoption May 8th, 1969 …
Speaker 2: [00:49:00] Has continuously refused …
Narrator : Sonja Kaye’s body was found June 2nd, 1969.
Speaker 2: Child is now a neglected and …
Narrator : The coroner said she had been up there around three weeks.
Speaker 2: KRS 199 …
Narrator : The grandparents filed for adoption within days of Sonja Kaye’s murder. This is the same grandmother that told Karen all those years ago that her mother was Mountain Jane Doe. …
Narrator : [00:49:30] 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 have 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 data base, and the science of DNA to reveal the truth about Sonja Kaye’s identity. And confirm what Karen Stipes knew all along.
Speaker 1: [00:50:30] 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. And I want to get her a nice stone and everything and … I just hope I can … I hope she would be proud.
Narrator : Karen plans to bury her mother in Harlan this spring. …
Narrator : Sonja Kaye Blair-Adams story was a success for NamUs. The National Missing and Unidentified Persons System. It did what it was made to do by finding a missing woman among the dead. NamUs works Jane and John Doe cases all over the country. And they’ve solved a lot of them. But their job just got a lot harder. The department of justice recently cut the federal funding that made Mountain Jane Doe’s DNA identification possible. That’s why the lab we visited in Texas where they ID’d Mountain Jane Doe stopped excepting cases from NamUs a few weeks ago. Unless they bring back the federal funding, people in [inaudible 00:51:53] situation could be stuck indefinitely. Without knowing for certain about the death of a relative. And there are more than twelve thousand Jane and John Doe’s in America today.
Narrator : That’s our show, thanks for listening. If you want to try and solve an unidentified case, check out our lost and found app at lostandfound.revealnews.org. Where you can compare missing person cases with unidentified cases. You can also find information about what to do if you have a missing loved one at that website. It’s lostandfound.revealnews.org. Our show was edited by [inaudible 00:52:34] and produced by Michael I Schiller. The story came out of an original investigation by reporter G.W. Schultz and story editor Fernando Diez.
Narrator : With additional reporting and production support from Scott Anger, Rachel Delion, Emanuel Martinez, and Micheal Montgomery. Special thanks to Carl Collier, W.Y.M.T, Lance Hale, the Kentucky Archives Center, and the Harlan County Library. We had research help from Lauren Grandstaff, Ginger Hurvey, and Renee Hickman with the non-profit investigative reporters and editors. Our sound design team is the wonder twins, my man, Jay Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs, and Clair [inaudible 00:53:05] Mullin. Our head of studio is [inaudible 00:53:09]. Amy [inaudible 00:53:08] our editor and chief. Susan Reeber’s our executive editor and our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. [inaudible 00:53:14] is by Commarado [inaudible 00:53:16]. Support for our viewers provided by the Reva and David Logan foundation. The Ford Foundation, the John D and Katherine T MacArthur foundation. The John S and James L. Knight Foundation. And the Ethics in Excellence and Journalism Foundation, reveals the co-production of the center for investigative reporting in PRX. I’m Al Letson and remember there is always more to the story.
PART 5 OF 5 ENDS [00:53:57]