BERKELEY • The steady pace of a backhoe peeling back layers of dirt in a cemetery here Monday all but ceased with the discovery of a simple staple.
It was the kind that held white cloth to a wooden casket used by the St. Louis medical examiner almost 30 years before to bury a headless child whose unsolved murder and unknown identity have haunted the region for decades.
The little piece of metal was the signal that a dozen police, forensic scientists and helpers were going to find the lost grave this time — and with it their last slim chance of learning the child’s name, and finding her killer.
Digging exposed a bouquet of faux white flowers a florist had donated for the burial on Dec. 2, 1983. Then finally, a wooden casket. Medical examiner’s officials measured to be sure. Five feet. It was her.
The casket’s top bent like rubber as investigators pulled it back, exposing a white body bag that revealed the outline of what may be telling bones.
St. Louis homicide Detective Dan Fox wanted to be sure there was no mistake.
“Growth plate. It’s not even fused,” said Stephen McCoy, a medical examiner’s death investigator, confirming that these bones were not fully grown. The victim had been believed to be 8 to 11 years old. Discovery of the pink-and-white checkered dress in which she was buried removed any doubt.
McCoy secured the bag and lifted it over his head to the waiting hands of Calvin Whitaker, who runs a livery service for bodies.
Whitaker is one of a small army of volunteers who searched the overgrown Washington Park Cemetery, near Lambert-St. Louis International Airport, using burial records and clearing decades of brush.
Now, forensic scientists at the St. Louis morgue will try to extract fresh DNA and consider whether specialized testing out-of-state might shed light on the girl’s identity.
Scavengers looking for pipe found her on Feb. 28, 1983, in an abandoned home at 5635 Clemens Avenue. Her arms were bound and she wore 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 never certain whether she had been sexually assaulted, said one of the original detectives, Joe Burgoon, now a cold-case investigator for the St. Louis County police.
Police presumed the girl was not from St. Louis because no one reported her missing. Burgoon and Fox believe modern forensic testing could determine the area where she grew up by minerals in her bones from the water she drank. That could lead to an identification, which is critical to finding the killer.
Just finding the grave was difficult, because she was neither where records showed nor at the headstone placed for her later. Burgoon said a previous search had unearthed three bodies, none hers.
A Post-Dispatch story about that search, in March, included pictures of the burial provided by Ed Sedej, an industrial photographer from Belleville who covered the funeral as a photojournalist for the old St. Louis Globe-Democrat.
Charles Fuchs showed the story to his niece, Abby Stylianou, a research associate in the Department of Computer Science & Engineering at Washington University. Her mother had grown up just blocks from where the child was found dead.
Armed with Sedej’s photographs, Stylianou and a group of her fellow researchers tried to pinpoint the grave using aerial images from the U.S. Geological Survey. They predicted it was just to the left of a full-grown tree that wasn’t there 30 years before.
They were right.
Stylianou and the rest of the exhumation team referred to Sedej’s photographs again Monday, to help them recognize the casket and the flowers atop it.
Tears came to Stylianou’s eyes as Whitaker put the remains into a new body bag and loaded the stretcher into his vehicle.
“Nothing prepares you for that,” she said.
Nearby, Fox sighed with relief.
“This is going to bring a lot of closure to a lot of people,” said Fox, the latest in a string of investigators who have tried to solve the case. “Just finding her and finally knowing where she’s buried, even if nothing else comes of the case, this will be enough for some people.”
EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version of this story misquoted an investigator speaking about the growth plate found during the dig, giving the wrong name for the body part found. This version has been corrected.