BERKELEY • Washington University researchers joined the search Thursday for the misplaced grave of an unidentified girl who had been slain and decapitated 30 years ago. The fresh expertise bolstered the hopes of investigators seeking new forensic clues in the unsolved case.
Offers of help have poured in to funeral director Calvin Whitaker since a Post-Dispatch story Sunday about his volunteer efforts to find the remains of a child known as “Little Jane Doe” or “Hope.” Her body is not in the grave site listed for her, or where her headstone sits, in the neglected and overgrown Washington Park Cemetery, near Lambert-St. Louis International Airport.
Among those moved by the story was Abby Stylianou, a research associate in the Media and Machines Lab within the Department of Computer Science & Engineering at Washington University. Her uncle, Charles Fuchs, read the news account and showed it to Stylianou, whose mother grew up on a street just blocks from where the little girl’s body had been discovered.
“At that time, they were terrified,” Stylianou said of her family.
On Thursday, Fuchs, his trusty white terrier Dan, Stylianou and three doctoral students joined Whitaker and homicide detectives at the cemetery to try to find the grave using news photographs of the burial. The Post-Dispatch borrowed photo negatives of the event from Ed Sedej, an industrial photographer from Belleville, who had covered the funeral as a photojournalist for the old St. Louis Globe-Democrat.
Stylianou plans to make comparisons with aerial images from the U.S. Geological Survey, using computer techniques in a lab. She hopes to have results within weeks.
St. Louis homicide Detective Dan Fox said he would take Stylianou’s findings to the city medical examiner, Dr. Michael Graham, to seek approval to exhume the remains. Investigators hoping to identify her want to send samples to the University of North Texas, where researchers can extract better DNA than now on file and use minerals in bones to try to deduce from drinking water the region where she lived.
Police could never determine the identity of the child, believed to be from 8 to 11 years old. They suspect she came from outside the St. Louis area, given that massive publicity at the time did not bring anyone forward with information about her.
“All of the investigators that have worked on this case through the years have always thought if we could identify her, we could find her killer,” Fox said, as Stylianou’s team trudged through decades of overgrown brush nearby.
About three years ago, Graham authorized exhumation of the girl so her body could be moved to the Garden of Innocents, at Calvary Cemetery. Three bodies were found in caskets near her marker, but none was hers.
Graham, concerned about unnecessarily disturbing others’ graves, said help from Washington University experts made him more comfortable about authorizing additional digging. He considers the water science “experimental” but said he was willing to explore it if she was being exhumed anyway for DNA and potential relocation of her grave.
“If it works, it works; if it doesn’t, it doesn’t,” Graham said.
“Obviously, everyone wants to try and resolve this. If nothing else, she deserves it.”
Scavengers looking for pipe found the body on Feb. 28, 1983, in an abandoned home at 5635 Clemens Avenue. Her arms were bound behind her and she was wearing only a yellow sweater, with its tag cut off. The medical examiner concluded she was African-American, weighed about 60 pounds and was about 4-foot-10 without her head, which had been removed after death. It was never found. Police were not certain whether she had been sexually assaulted.
Joe Burgoon, who worked the case before retiring from the St. Louis police, has continued to try to solve it. He is now a cold case investigator for St. Louis County police. He said he was grateful for the work of Whitaker and others to locate the remains in the overgrown cemetery of more than 40,000 graves.
Whitaker would like to keep her in the Washington Park Cemetery, moving her to near where he and other volunteers recently reburied a 7-year-old boy, killed by a car in the 1920s, whose above-ground tomb had broken open.
Said Graham: “We’ll make that decision when we get there.”
Thursday’s visit showed that the search remains a work in progress, as Stylianou climbed over downed trees and through dense brush to locate trees and headstones seen in the 1983 photographs.
Usually the researchers analyze images in computer labs to study climate change and tree health. So being out in the field is a rarity, Stylianou said.
“This is really meaningful,” she said.
Participants regrouped at the headstone before parting ways.
“So, what do you think?” Whitaker asked her. “Do you know?”
She replied, “We won’t know until we get back to the lab.”