How Walker County Doe was finally identified – Texas Monthly

Apparently, she had been dead for about six hours. The teenage girl’s body was found about 20 feet from the shoulder of Interstate 45 at around 9:30 a.m. on November 1, 1980, just north of Huntsville. A rectangular pendant hangs around her neck, and she is completely naked.

The only clues police could gather about her identity came from the testimony of a manager and two workers at the nearby South End Bay gas station and Hitchin’ Post truck stop. They found her wearing a white sweater, a yellow jumper and blue jeans on Halloween night. Clutching her heels, she asked how to get to nearby Ellis Prison Farm, one of several state prisons dotted on the outskirts of towns in eastern Texas.

For more than forty years, she was known only as the Walker County Doe – the nameless victim of a brutal murder and sexual assault that baffled local law enforcement and captivated true crime fans. That changed Tuesday morning. Accompanied by officials from multiple law enforcement agencies, including the FBI and the Texas Rangers, Walker County Sheriff Clint McCray announced that the girl was finally no longer anonymous.

“This year marks the 40th anniversary of this horrific crime, and in this time of year I want to reveal the fact that our victim has been identified: Shirley Ann Jarvis,” said McRae, wearing a hat on his head. Beige cowboy hat. “I never liked calling this a cold case. It’s always been a top priority for our department. We love her, too.”

McRae revealed that Jarvis was born on March 9, 1966, which means she was only 14 years old when she was killed. Contrary to long-running theories that she hails from Rockport or Aransas Pass (two locations Jarvis reportedly mentioned to the Hitchin’ Post waitress), she’s actually east of Minneapolis about I grew up in the small town of Stillwater, Minnesota, 25 miles away. Jarvis was arrested by local authorities at the age of 13 for habitually playing truant from school, according to a lengthy statement from the family read by a sheriff’s deputy. Shortly after her fourteenth birthday, she ran away for good.

“We lost Shirley more than 41 years ago and we have lived in confusion every day since then until she has finally been found,” the statement said. “Sherri Ann Jarvis was daughter, sister, cousin and granddaughter. She loved children, animals and horseback riding. . . . She has been deprived of so many life experiences because of this tragedy. She was denied the opportunity to experience romance and love, marital bliss, the heartache and pain of loss, the sheer joy of having a baby or growing old and being able to reflect on the milestones that provide a rich life. . . . You are now with Mom and Dad Together Shirley, may you rest in peace.”

According to her brother Don, he exchanged a series of messages with the administrator of “Who is Walker County Doe?” In the Facebook group back in September, the last letter Jarvis had with her family was a letter to her mother, postmarked in Denver. In her letter, Jarvis said she would be in touch with family sometime between her 18th and 21st birthdays. Despite multiple attempts to find her, including hiring a private eye and keeping the same home phone number for decades in the hope that she would call one day, they never heard from her again.

Carl Koppelman, a 58-year-old retired accountant who started the Facebook group, recognized the importance of Tuesday’s announcement more than most. For more than a dozen years, he pored through pages of forensic files and police reports filled with grisly details of Jarvis’s killing — a huge challenge for the vast online community dedicated to uncovering the identities of unnamed murder victims. It is a regular activity for people in the community.

“I became aware of this case around 2009, shortly after I started out in the world. It was one of the most high-profile cases, and still is,” Kopelman said. “It’s easy to see why. It was a teenage girl who seemed to come from a middle-class background. You’d think the parents would come and claim the body or report her missing. But that never happened. It’s a big mystery in itself.”

Koppelman’s research extends far beyond police paperwork. At his home in Torrance, Calif., he rummaged through the yearbook files of dozens of high schools in Texas, hoping to spot her hazel eyes and neat brown hair amidst a row of classmates. He stares intently at crime scene photographs as he creates forensic illustrations to share with investigators from Internet collectives such as the DNA Doe Project and the Websleuths. He also recruited more than 20,000 followers in his Facebook group to share their findings. Koppelman even traveled to Huntsville in 2017 to retrace the girl’s last footsteps with several women who also oversaw the case, and to adorn her anonymous grave with flowers. But these efforts ultimately proved futile.

Likewise, for years, police investigators have tried to identify the Walker County Doe using the meager evidence left at the crime scene. They took tips from ordinary citizens and enlisted the help of other law enforcement agencies, especially those located along the Texas coast. They got nothing but dead ends. Even with the rise of popular direct-to-consumer DNA testing sites like 23andMe and Ancestry.com, which have amassed the genetic information of millions of Americans and become fertile ground for law enforcement agencies to demand plenty of lead, the case seems doomed To put on hold.

In July 2020, Detective Thomas Bean, the Walker County Sheriff’s Department lead investigator on the case, received a call from Othram, a forensic DNA laboratory in the Woodlands. Jane Doe in Walker County was seen by Othram as a potential case that Othram could assist with, given the complexity of the crime and the fact that it was committed less than 50 miles from the company campus, said company founder David Mittelman. Although Othram has only been around since 2018, it has made headlines for helping solve cold cases through forensic genetic genealogy—an investigative method that combines advanced DNA analysis with traditional genealogy research. Its previous successes include helping to identify a suspect in the 1974 Kara Walker murder in Fort Worth and identifying an unknown teenager who mysteriously drowned in Pecos Township, West Texas in 1966.

Bean accepts Othram’s help. Mittman’s team quickly understood why the case had been lingering for so long. Forensic genealogy testing has little to no actionable evidence. Much of the victim’s skeletal remains (a femur and a tooth Bean sent to the lab in October 2020) had decayed over the decades and had been repeatedly tested by other labs, stripping away nearly all available bone. of genetic material.

This isn’t the first time scientists at Othram have faced such a challenge. They rarely have access to high-quality genetic samples. They often have to scrutinize older, smaller, and less complete samples than those produced by home DNA testing kits. But the lab’s proprietary technology is designed to recover and enhance tiny amounts of degraded forensic evidence. For example, genetic testing company 23andMe collects about 1,000 nanograms of DNA using a buccal swab, Mittelman said. His team, on the other hand, identified the 32-year-old rape and murder suspect in Las Vegas using just 0.12 nanograms of DNA, the smallest genetic sample ever used to solve the case.

However, after weeks of work, scientists in Otham determined that even they could not glean enough information from the remains of Jane Doe in Walker County. Fortunately, Bean had another piece of evidence at his disposal: a piece of brain tissue preserved in a formalin-fixed paraffin-embedded block, a process that uses formaldehyde and paraffin to protect DNA proteins and vital structures. The practice, which was once standard practice, was adopted by law enforcement because it kept physical evidence intact, Mittelman said, but it also greatly inhibited the ability of DNA collectors to obtain remnants of the genetic code — something that has become increasingly common in the United States. It wasn’t on Walker County detectives’ radar in 1980.

“Using some kind of material that contained formaldehyde was standard practice at the time. This sucked all the water out of the cells of the body and made it a really hard structure, basically freezing it in time. It was a cool thing, Because you can look at the cells under a microscope a year or two later,” he said. “But the bad news is that it can create a situation where you’re basically nailing a dehydrated butterfly to a board. If you try to take that butterfly apart later, it just turns to dust.”

Brain tissue was severely damaged by the chemical solution, but that’s easily the best evidence the scientists at Outham have. Everything changed from there, Mittelman said. While previous tests of the tissue by other labs have been inconclusive, Othram managed to identify nine nanograms of DNA molecules from it by using specialized techniques to enhance specific genomic sequences and then methodically piece together the fragmented fragments of the genetic code. Said forensic-grade genome sequencing. The process allows Othram to work with DNA that would otherwise be considered too damaged, he said.

Once they had reconstructed enough of the victim’s DNA, Othram scientists began sorting through tens of thousands of family tree samples in third-party databases, looking for matches. It was an arduous, weeks-long process, but in March 2021, they whittled down their list of potential matches for distant relatives to six people they believed to be Jane Doe’s parents, siblings or aunts and uncles in Walker County.

From there, it’s up to Bean to verify that Othram’s clues are real. That meant Sherri Jarvis’ siblings were eventually located before a search of online databases and social media platforms confirmed to him that they were indeed missing a family member. After months of heartbreaking conversations, follow-up investigations and additional genetic testing by government labs on fresh DNA samples from the family, Bean confirmed in late September that Shirley had been located.

Despite the breakthroughs, authorities have not officially announced the case until now to give the family time to renew their mourning ahead of today’s news conference, Mittelman said. Even in closely watched cases like this one, the family’s wishes always come before information is released to the public.

“I’m glad that part is finally concluded,” Bean told a handful of reporters at a news conference, refusing to provide specifics on leads on potential suspects. “Now we’re going to find out who did this to Shirley. That’s going to be one of the things I’m looking forward to when I finish my career.”

Even though Shirley Jarvis gets her name back, Bean still has mysteries to unravel. How long has she been in Texas? Why was she going to jail that night? And, most importantly, who killed her and why? Bean’s team is investigating whether Jarvis’ death is linked to other unsolved murders that occurred in the same area around the same time.

However, the identity of this young girl brings with it some sense of finality. “What excites me the most is being able to provide answers. These cases happened a long time ago, and the world moves on, except for a few dedicated website sleuths. But these families can’t move on,” Mittelman said, suggesting that DNA also May lead to suspects. “It makes you look back at all the unsolved cases, whether it’s a crime or an unidentified person, and say, ‘Is there anything that can be done?’ Because as long as there’s DNA, there’s hope.”

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