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'Someone Knows': How new DNA testing is helping investigators identify Sandusky 'Jane Doe'

3News Investigates follows the Porchlight Project organization on its journey to solve cold cases using genetic genealogy.

SANDUSKY, Ohio — It’s a story that continues 41 years later about a Sandusky "Jane Doe" whose body was found on the shores of Lake Erie.

To this day, the body of the woman remains without any identification. No missing person reports were ever filed.

The case is now on the brink of development, all thanks to new DNA testing.


On an early morning in late March of 1980, the Cedar Point Causeway was gripped by shock.

"Where did she come from?" investigators pondered.

Archived newspaper clippings are all that paints a picture of their discovery of the body.

There was minimal evidence. The only thing left intact? The dress she was wearing upon discovery.

"They don't know who this woman was, to this day," James Renner, investigative journalist and president of the Porchlight Project, says. "She's estimated to [be] between 20 and 30 years old, about 120 pounds, stood about 5 feet 5 inches. That's about all we know about her."

The body was far too decomposed to determine a cause of death, leaving no clues for motives or who did it.

"It's such a unique mystery," Renner explained.

The Porchlight Project is a non-profit organization that's pioneering an entirely new method of solving cold cases using new DNA testing and genetic genealogy.

"They kind of need to have DNA already or some sample that can be tested," Renner described. "We can do pretty much any John Doe or Jane Doe case, because you have the remains."

One of the organization’s most successful cases was that of Barbara Blatnik, who was killed at the age of 17 in December of 1987. Renner stumbled upon the case 32 years later and, while working with Cuyahoga Falls Police Department, offered to fund DNA genealogical testing.

"They had a sample of the killer's DNA and that was given to a lab," Renner said. "That directed the Cuyahoga Falls police to a family in Cleveland, [which] led to the arrest of James Zastawnik."

Using that same method with samples taken from the young woman found all dressed up and lifeless on the shores of Lake Erie, Renner and Sandusky police are hoping to learn who she was and how she got there all those long decades ago.

"Someone out there is missing a daughter, or a sister, and we are going to find that person," Renner said.

Past reports from authorities did not believe the woman was from the area.

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