Mystery off I-85 | Do you know Jane?
EDITOR'S NOTE: If you are viewing this in our app, click this link to view full story.
Do you know Jane?
COMMERCE, Ga. – She sweeps back her dark, tightly spiraled hair from her bronzed face, securing it into a ponytail. Small curls cascade down the nape of her neck. Her finger glistens in the sunlight with a jewel-encrusted, silver ring, as she fastens the clasp of her favorite butterfly necklace.
Maybe that’s how her last day alive started.
It’s what investigators are trying to uncover.
A female was found in Banks County, one mile off Interstate 85, and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation has only a few clues that they’re counting on to identify her. Problem is, she has no face, no fingerprints and no voice.
Because they only found her bones.
She’s someone’s daughter and possibly someone’s mother and wife.
Her name is Jane Doe, for now.
But her true identity has been stripped away by years of exposure to the elements and neglect.
Jeremy Howell, special agent and crime scene specialist with the GBI, is determined to understand who she is, where her story began, and why it ended in this rural resting place.
Leading the investigation, he said, they are hoping someone will recognize the evidence they found alongside her bones, which were scattered throughout the woods just yards off Hwy. 59, in Commerce, Ga., and within earshot of one of Georgia’s busiest interstates with several exit points full of trees, brush and thick countryside to cover a crime or dump a body.
“I-85 is a highway that connects several metropolitan areas, whether it's Atlanta or up through South Carolina, into North Carolina—along those roadways are several rural areas in which a body can be clandestinely discarded,” Howell said. “It's easy just to pull off I-85, travel about a mile, and you're at a very secluded area in which you can dispose of a body.”
Given that stretch of distance, her home could lead investigators hundreds of miles away.
But first, she needs to be identified.
What they know so far is that she is likely a black female, 30-44 years old and between 5’2 and 5’6 tall.
Most of her bones were recovered, as were bits and pieces of her clothing and two pieces of silver jewelry. The GBI is optimistic that someone—maybe you—will know who she is based on the ring and pendant that were found nearby her skull—which was stumbled upon by a real estate developer surveying the area in February.
“Once we can identify her, we can work our victimology. Find out where she's from, who she associates with, and try to get an idea of where she was last seen, who she was last seen with,” Howell said.
*DISCLAIMER: This story contains graphic images
On the scene
Walking through the crunch of winter’s leftover leaves and pushing through spring’s knee-high grass and thorn-ridden weeds, sporadic highway traffic can be heard just through a patch of fully bloomed trees and bushes.
Just behind the New Salem Methodist Church in Commerce, Ga., there is an overgrown service roadway, making the area accessible, but also secretive, Howell said.
“Just a couple of hundred feet off the highway... you can easily pull a vehicle up in here and never be seen. Traffic is not all that frequent on this road; and they're going by at such a fast rate, I doubt that they would notice a vehicle that had pulled up in here in the wooded area,” he reveals.
"This looks a lot different with vegetation,” Howell said, recalling when they found her in February. “It was actually a warmer day. And I think that's what was causing the storms to be rolling through that day. It was not as grown up as it is now. The leaves had fallen, so it was visible through the trees, and there was just a lot of leaf litter on the ground at the time.”
After about a five-minute walk, he turns right into the heavily wooded area access point, trekking through the snap of branches and shuffling through a dust of red Georgia clay dirt.
Cans and bottles are spewed throughout the natural debris.
“There’s a lot of trash out here; a lot of things are dumped out in this area,” he said.
The mid-morning sun peeks through the tree tops and dances on the ground, illuminating where Howell points out where he and his team of about 10, dredged through and scoured the 70 x 90-foot scene.
“This is where we began measuring from, is in this area and it was initially set up in this high ground where we ran a tape line down this direction. We found a majority of remains in this depression area right here,” Howell said pointing and explaining where they found her skull.
“She also had some other bones that were located approximately 70 feet down through these woods, as well as some additional remains that were located across this old road bed.”
As he continues to give a tour of the scene, Katrina Willis, an investigative evidence analyst, with the Banks County Sheriff’s Office, places something minute into the palm of Howell’s hand. He looks at it and determines immediately what he’s holding.
It’s another bone.
Four months after their initial search of the scene.
It’s a finger bone.
But, he’s not surprised, given the change in terrain.
“I can tell you that it seems to be consistent with a hand bone or a foot bone,” Howell said. “I'm not surprised by this, given how long she was out here, the leaf litter, the ground debris. We recovered the majority of her, but again, some of these smaller bones are difficult to see and difficult to find—even as we rake and sifted through all this debris.”
Howell said rodents and animals will grab the bones and haul them off and put them in their nest or underneath one of the many down trees or large, fallen branches.
“It would not surprise me if there were small bone fragments in that tree stump over there, that would have been dragged away through rodent activity—but we try our best to recover what we can through digging and sifting,” he said.
As he walks through the wooded area, he bends over, pushing leaves around with his heavy, tan work boots, searching with a meticulous eye.
“That's a twisted root. It's amazing how even little sticks now look like bone fragment,” he said. “It's got me in hunting mode now.”
A find so important, he said, it warrants another survey of the land since the leaf litter changes the visual dynamics of the area.
“There's no telling what all else may be out here,” he said. “Now, I want to spend a day out here again... keep looking. We could spend forever out here and possibly not recover everything.”
Many of the larger bones were located on the other side of a depressed, old road bed, including a head and leg bone.
While the bones were scattered, he said, there is no indication that she was dismembered.
Howell, who studied for 10 weeks at Tennessee’s University of Tennessee Anthropological Research Facility, also known as the “Body Farm,” said her body was likely in the woods for four years or less.
“One component of that, is body recovery and learning to recognize different bones in various states of decomposition, Howell said. “Once you recognize what the bones are, they're actually rather easy to find.”
It all began when a real estate developer, surveying the land for construction, thought he saw a soccer ball.
It was a bright white, round… skull.
The skull appeared to be undisturbed, Howell said.
“It had bleaching on one side of the skull and the side of the skull was not exposed to the sun and to the elements had some slight discoloration to it,” he said. “We're also looking for any trauma that may be to the skull, such as blunt-force trauma, a bullet hole, or anything else that seems abnormal.”
While there was no evidence to suggest blunt-force trauma, they are treating her case as a possible homicide.
“It would be irresponsible to not treat this as a foul-play homicide,” Howell said.
“When we're requested to do a skeletal recovery, one of the first things we want to do is survey the territory; get an idea of how massive of an hour are we dealing with. Is it a clandestine burial or is it a surface scatter? In this situation, it was a surface scatter,” Howell said.
Not a burial.
Oftentimes, he admitted, crime scene work can be dynamic and ever-changing, especially when we're dealing with environmental conditions, like scattered storms rolling through the area.
“We were doing our best to try and collect all the remains, search the area, scrape away all the pine straw and the leaves in the area, to be able to locate all the evidence that we could find before the rains moved in,” Howell recalled.
But they were also dealing with diminished daylight in the wintertime evening hours.
“The sunlight changed throughout the course of the day, so things that we were not seeing during the daylight hours, we were seeing midday and into the afternoon,” Howell said, who also said the investigators raked and sifted through small quadrants, locating bones and evidence; documenting them and photographing them, laying them out to form the shape of her body.
A look inside the evidence
Dispersed amongst the bones, investigators found two pieces of silver-colored jewelry, as well as several pieces of clothing—which they had to isolate from the trash strewn across the area.
“We have to evaluate and determine whether or not there's any sort of investigative interest associated with it,” Howell said.
Approximately 20-30 feet from the bones, they found a small, blue drawstring or shoelace, purple underwear with white lace, a blue sports bra with black trim and white or gray sweat suit-type pants and remnants of a T-shirt—all degraded due to environmental conditions.
Jewelry found in close proximity to the skull, included was a silver butterfly necklace pendant with clear jewels and a silver ring with clear gems embedded inside and around the top of the ring.
“I'm hoping that somebody will recognize one element of the clothing or one element of the jewelry and give us some direction as to who this may be,” Howell said.
As it stands, he said, they’re treating her case as a homicide investigation, covering everything from sexual assault to abduction to kidnapping to human trafficking and armed robbery.
Telling her story
GBI anthropologist, Alice Gooding, who worked on beauty queen Tara Grinstead’s murder case and excavation, said that she could determine the female’s height, sex and ancestry based on her bones and what they tell her.
She said it’s bones that give the dead a voice.
“They don’t have a voice at this point and there’s no one speaking for them… and as a scientist, this is the best that I can offer.”
Her bones, Gooding said, are quite small and gracile, which means they're very smooth, giving her a pretty good indication that she is female.
Height is determined by the length of the arm and leg bones, she said.
“She was pretty short and you can tell, the length of the bones are quite short.”
“In terms of stature, or living height, we can measure the bones themselves and put that into a program that generates a height based on the measurements of all her long bones—which are the bones of her arms and legs,” Gooding said holding up the femur bone.
“We use [race] in life and it connotes skin color and language, clothing, personal mannerisms, but unfortunately, our bones are only a collection of genetic-relatedness from thousands of years ago,” Gooding explained.
“So, they show us our ancestry, as opposed to race. And there's not always a tight correlation between your skin color in life and the... I guess what our bones are telling us.”
That said, the bones are likely that of a black female, but also has Hispanic and American white traits present—but nothing decisive, although some black, tightly curled hair was found amidst the bones as they were recovered.
“Unfortunately, she actually had characteristics in the face of multiple, different ancestral groups, which is going to make it more difficult for her to be identified,” she said. “We identified her as being 'probable black,' however, she neatly falls into categories of Hispanic and American white females as well.”
While her remains are a largely completed skeleton, Gooding said, she is missing some components of her left, lower arm. And her right lower arm is missing a bone, as well as missing some from her hands and feet.
“We really only have fragmentary remains of—because there's carnivore damage to the bones, which means scavenger animals chewed up the ends of the bones, and they also chewed up some of the hands and feet, so we are missing quite a bit of those—and a few of the lumbar vertebrae as well, which are the vertebrae in your lower back.”
Gooding could determine an approximate age based on visual observation and examination of her pelvic bone, as well as her teeth.
“Her teeth are also not very worn down, which means that she is not significantly older—which means that the age estimation that we did off the pelvis is corroborated by the teeth.”
She points out the quality of her teeth, indicating, she said, that she may have had braces at some point and access to healthcare.
“The bottom ones, there is kind of an interesting displacement of this tooth, and she is missing a molar that would have fallen out or been taken out long before death. However, she has an uninterrupted wisdom tooth.”
Another indication of her age, she said, is her skull.
“In females, you tend to see a smoother brow ridge, which are those bones underneath your eyebrows,” she said.
The skull also clues the forensic anthropologist that there is no evidence of “perimortem trauma,” which is trauma that happens at or around the time of death.
“In this case, no, there's nothing on the bone that indicates what happened to her,” Gooding said.
Bringing her back to life
Howell said his next steps in the investigation is sending a sample of her remains for a DNA analysis to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, as well as request a facial reconstruction from GBI forensic artist, Kelly Lawson.
“The majority of what I do is travel from one police department to the next to meet with victims or witnesses to violent crimes,” Lawson, a five-year veteran to the agency. “And I sit down with them and show them some photos and we just kind of have a talk. And they'll give me a description of an individual and then I draw their description on paper and we work with it back and forth until they're happy.”
But, some days her victims cannot speak.
“Occasionally, I'm called to work with the dead in an effort to try and identify unidentified, deceased individuals. And what that means is, you can have various people, when they're deceased, be in all stages.”
She explained that people go through many changes after they die.
“From when they soon die, they look just like you and I look now, to where they can, all the way become skeletonized. So, I get different individuals brought to me at every range of that process,” the artist said.
If someone looks like they do when they're alive, she said that she will draw a picture in a color sketch, so that that it can be put into the public in an effort to identify that person.
And, rarely, bones are brought to her, making it her responsibility to mold a face based different ancestral land markers across the skull creating a 3-D skull reconstruction—bringing her facial features, and possibly, her smile, back to life for someone who knows her, knows her name, knows her story.
When a skull makes it to Lawson’s office—where paint brushes and clay fill her workspace, and sketches adorn her walls—she receives the anthropologist’s report with it, giving her information like height, sex and ancestry.
She then plugs that information into a chart, which breaks down the different landmarks on the skull. Once that’s established, she can place markers on the skull to indicate the distance between the bones and the once-flesh-covered face.
Once the markers are in place, Lawson photographs the skill, giving her a better idea about how big her face might be or how far her face’s features might protrude.
“There are a lot of other interesting things you can learn from the skull. When you turn it sideways, and you have your nasal cavity here. There's a small stem that comes out of the bottom of the nasal cavity. If you continue that stem in the direction that, it's already existent, and you continue the top of the nasal bone, where they meet gives me a good indication of how long the nose is,” Lawson said.
“There's a lot of great tricks that help me to kind of get, at least a good feel for what the person looks like.”
Using markers for placement, she coats the skull in clay and forms the head and face.
“You would connect one piece to the next, until you have the face fleshed out and then you would coat it in a small layer of clay, as if it were skin. You put doll's eyes into it to kind of replicate a more realistic look. And you then you put a wig on it,” she said.
Using creative paper clay, which dries hard and white, she said, is like working with a canvas. She then uses both airbrush, as well as, acrylic paints to transform the skull into a face, creating the most realistic reconstruction that she can.
“We want people to be able to see them on the news and think, 'You know, that could be so and so...' I don't want them to be distracted if the art is not good or if the color doesn't seem right,” Lawson, whose mother, Marla Lawson, was the first forensic artist at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, said.
The first thing she will do when she sees the female skull from Banks County, she said, is just spend some time looking her over, uncovering what makes her unique—and whether she had a smile.
“I'll examine the teeth to see if all of the teeth, or if not all, maybe most of the teeth are present, so that I can determine whether the reconstruction is going to have a smile or not a smile,” Lawson said.
If she can have an open mouth, she said, it will help further their chances in identifying her because people tend to recognize a person’s smile.
While she will complete a sketch swiftly for investigators—within days, the 3-D skull reconstruction will take approximately a hundred hours to complete.
“I really just try to follow what my gut tells me; follow whatever the spirit is,” she said. “I really try to give my best because if you think about it, this is probably the last photo or drawing that'll ever be done of an individual.”
“They deserve the best that you can offer,” she said.
How can you help?
Who was she? A mother, a friend, a wife? Her bones give clues, and soon, she’ll have a face.
Howell is optimistic that someone out there can give her back what time has stolen… her identity.
She matches several people missing in the southeast area, he said, posing both hope and challenges.
“We're utilizing the website known as NAMUS—which is a website for missing people and her data has been entered into that website. We're reaching out to all our law enforcement partners in the surrounding states to see if she may match some of the descriptions of many of these missing people.”
If you have any information or believe that you know this woman, call the GBI Athens office at, (706) 552-2309 or the Banks County Sheriff’s Office at (706) 677-2248.