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ST. LOUIS • Police could never figure out who she was. Where she came from. Or who killed her. Now, they can’t even find the grave holding the decapitated remains of a child slain 30 years ago — bones that offer the remote chance of a lead in a stone-cold case that otherwise has none.

Scavengers discovered the little girl, probably between the ages of 8 and 11, on Feb. 28, 1983, decomposing in an abandoned home on the north side. Her head was never found. Despite heavy publicity, nobody identified her. Police surmised she could have come from outside the region.

“Somebody loved that little girl,” said Joe Burgoon, one of the original homicide detectives on the case. “She was very well cared for. You would think somebody by now would have come forward to say they were missing a child. But we’re no closer now than we were then to finding out who she was.”

That identity, Burgoon says, could bring answers to an aching family somewhere, and might help reveal her killer.

Time is an enemy of investigations. But in this case, the passage of years has seen an evolution in investigative tools, such as DNA and a process said to link people to where they grew up based on minerals deposited in their bones from the water they drank.

Burgoon believes that should her remains be recovered, forensic scientists could bolster the DNA on hand, and the bones could reveal more about her.

First, he needs to find her grave. Records from the Washington Park Cemetery in Berkeley have proven inaccurate. Decades of neglect and mismanagement left the sprawling graveyard heavily overgrown, and some graves crowded.

A previous attempt to exhume the body, near a monument volunteers erected in her memory, led to the discovery of three bodies in caskets — none hers. The St. Louis medical examiner wants proof of the grave’s location before authorizing any more digging.

It appears that two volunteers are now the only ones looking for it.

Funeral director Calvin Whitaker and his wife, Christina, have vowed to restore the cemetery. Every weekend for four months, they have focused on the area where the girl was buried, clearing brush and trees and using photographs of the graveside ceremony as their guide.

”It’s so sad, it’s as if she’s been lost twice,” said Christina Whitaker. “She was lost then and now she’s lost again.”

Calvin Whitaker, a district director for the Missouri Funeral Directors Association, said some call the girl “Hope.” And he’s hoping that should he find her, the city will let him bury her next to a little boy’s grave he restored.

He has already bought a new casket for her. It’s white steel with gold trim, adorned with images of angels. He keeps it in his garage.

NOT ‘AN EASY ONE’

Burgoon was one of the first St. Louis homicide detectives on the scene at 5635 Clemens Avenue. He was told two men went into the building, rummaging for pipe to fix a broken-down car. One of them flicked a cigarette lighter, and reflections from the flame danced across the decomposing body of an African-American female, lying face down.

Burgoon, now 74, said investigators first suspected she was a prostitute. Nylon rope bound her wrists behind her back. Her fingernails were polished in red. She wore only a yellow sweater, with its tag cut off.

“I thought, ‘This is going to be an easy one ... We’ll get her identified because someone will have reported her missing and that’ll be it.’ And then we turned her over.”

She was a pre-pubescent child.

Burgoon recites the details with the savant-like memory for which he is widely known. He can do the same with hundreds of other cases.

The medical examiner concluded the victim weighed about 60 pounds and was about 4-foot-10 without her head. It had been removed after death, with a long serrated knife. News accounts said she was sexually assaulted, but Burgoon said detectives were never sure.

“We believe she was killed somewhere else,” he said. “Her body had been drained of blood and there was nothing in her stomach.”

The Missouri Botanical Garden tested mold on her body and determined she had been dead about five days.

Police deployed a score of officers, knocking on doors, making calls and checking records of missing children. “We would knock on people’s doors and they would thank us for all that we were doing; they knew what we were there for,” Burgoon recalled, looking away as his voice trailed off.

The morgue held the body about nine months before giving up on the idea that someone might claim her. The city paid to bury her in the Washington Park Cemetery, one of several with contracts for indigent burials. “It was simply their turn to receive a body,” said Baxter Leisure, administrator for the medical examiner’s office.

Leisure attended the service, paying no particular attention to exactly where it was. “If you brought me back there, I couldn’t even tell you where I was standing,” he said last week. “And unfortunately, most of the folks who were involved in the burial are no longer with us and we can’t go back to them for further guidance.”

In May 1984, about six months after the burial, students from Livingston, Ill., raised money for a white headstone, which reads: “The saddened hearts were healed in knowing the pain of life is over and the beauty of the soul revealed.”

But it was put on the wrong grave.

AN OVERGROWN CEMETERY

The cemetery, north of Natural Bridge Road and south of Lambert-St. Louis International Airport, was established in 1920 and grew to more than 44,000 graves, most of African-Americans. Construction of Interstate 70, airport expansions and MetroLink projects left it divided and landlocked, with thousands of bodies moved to other cemeteries.

Sometime during the 1980s, workers began burying bodies on top of each other.

In 1991, the state accused the former owner of mismanagement, after finding bones above ground, shallow graves and others with multiple bodies. Burials stopped about 20 years ago — as did money for maintenance. Brush and trees swallowed most of the 50 acres, which also became a dump for tires, furniture and pallets.

The owner killed herself.

Kevin Bailey, whose father is buried there, bought the cemetery in July 2009, for $2.

About four months ago, the above-ground tomb of a 7-year-old boy, struck and killed by a car in the 1920s, broke open. Bailey called the Whitakers, who gathered volunteers to rebury the child and clean up the site.

Calvin Whitaker owns the St. Louis Livery Service, which transports bodies to morgues in St. Louis and St. Louis County. That’s how he knows Leisure, who told him about the hunt for the slain girl’s body.

Ever since, Whitaker has focused on finding her. He consulted cemetery records and other resources. He also is trying to collect news photos and tapes of the burial, in hopes of pinpointing the spot.

He’s had the area checked with ground-penetrating radar, but the effort was thwarted by soil disturbed during the previous exhumation attempt.

“She’s not at rest until you find her killer, and if there’s something more we can do to find that out, we should do it,” hesaid.

THE SCIENCE OF IDENTIFICATON

Burgoon has retired from the city police and spent the past seven years working part-time as a cold-case investigator for the St. Louis County police. He said he had solved about 40 crimes, including sexual assaults and homicides, almost entirely by digging out old evidence to be examined by modern forensic scientists. He calls them “the real heroes.”

Hope’s case is his coldest.

In his new role, Burgoon knows how far forensic science has come, specifically when it comes to identifying the dead through their bones.

He wants to have Hope’s remains sent to NamUs, the National Institute of Justice’s National Missing and Unidentified Persons System. It is a repository for records of missing persons and unidentified bodies that works with experts at North Texas University.

Burgoon is particularly interested in “stable isotopes analysis,” which links bone composition to a region by its drinking water. It claims to narrow the possibilities to as little as 10 percent of the world.

Dr. Michael Graham, the St. Louis medical examiner, considers it to be “experimental” and said he would not authorize exhumation of the remains solely for that purpose. But he would for the sake of DNA.

Investigators have a full DNA profile of the girl, fingerprints, toe prints and the mitochondrial (maternal lineage) DNA, said J. Todd Matthews, an official at NamUs. “But the materials we do have available to us in that case might not be available to be retested according to modern day standards,” he said. “So there is value in the DNA from those remains, and it would not be a worthless effort.

“If nothing else, we need to know where she’s at, and, if she’s identified, her family may want her remains returned.”

St. Louis crime lab scientists have entered the mitochondrial DNA profile into the NamUs database, which searches monthly for matches. Should the DNA of the girl’s maternal relatives be put into the system, officials here would be notified, said Mary Beth Karr, assistant director of the lab.

Karr said researchers also had checked the missing girl’s mitochondrial DNA several times against the database of criminal offenders in Missouri, with no success. A national search of such a sample is not yet technologically feasible, she said.

The first attempt to exhume the child was a function of compassion rather than investigation. The medical examiner wanted to move her to a better setting, at the Garden of Innocents, at Calvary Cemetery. Karr was there to observe. So was Burgoon. The failed effort caused the ground near Hope’s headstone to sink. But the brilliance of its white finish stands out from a backdrop of overgrown brush and weather-dulled markers.

“The sad thing is, she’s out here all by herself,” he said during a recent visit, as the bottom of his trademark brown trench coat brushed against the three-foot stone. “But maybe all the other souls are looking out for her.”

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