Tucson CitizenTucson Citizen


Citizen Staff
Mark Kimble COLUMN

Jane Doe: 21 years here in a grave marked UNK

Mark Kimble

Citizen Associate Editor

It was 21 years ago this week that a mother and a father lost their daughter.

She was blond and attractive. No one is certain how old she was – perhaps as young as 17, certainly no older than 24 or 25.

She didn’t look like the type of person who had lived a tough life. Someone somewhere certainly missed her and wondered what happened.

She was strangled. And despite the best efforts of the Pima County Sheriff’s Department, the FBI and other law enforcement agencies, no one has any idea who this young woman was.

She was found in the desert southeast of Tucson. And for more than two decades, she has lain under an anonymous headstone at the Pima County Cemetery:

Jane Doe

UNK – 1981

Her murder remains open but unsolved. There are Pima County homicides that have gone unsolved for longer, but in all of those cases investigators at least knew who their victim was. There is no older unsolved Pima County homicide in which the victim has not been identified.

It was not much after noon on April 8, 1981 – 21 years ago this week – when a couple of men went hunting rabbits and looking for “treasure.” They were co-workers at an East Side home improvement store and decided to go bouncing through the desert in a Jeep that one owned.

From South Houghton Road, about 3 1/2 miles south of Interstate 10 and near the Pima County Fairgrounds, they turned east and drove along a wash. About a half-mile in, they spotted clothing hanging from a tree.

One of the men later recalled to deputies that he mentioned to his friend that he hoped they wouldn’t find a body. But in a small tributary wash, that’s what they saw. They got close enough to see that she was dead and notified deputies.

Detectives came out and stayed there until it got dark, searching the area for any kind of evidence. There were a lot of shell casings from people plinking cans, but that didn’t have anything to do with the woman. There were some footprints and tire tracks, but no way to tell if they were connected to the crime.

The woman carried no identification, and there was nothing unusual about her clothing – brown leather shoes that were still tied, socks, light blue designer jeans and a blue blouse with burgundy and blue flowers on the sleeves. Her face was scratched, indicating she may have been walking through the desert brush.

She may have been sexually assaulted. An autopsy later determined that she had been strangled, probably 36 to 48 hours before her body was found.

Detectives did all they could to identify the woman and her killer. Several days after her body was found, they used a department airplane to fly over the entire area, taking pictures and looking for anything they might have missed.

They tried taking her fingerprints, but death had desiccated her hands. So they took the extraordinary step of cutting off her hands and sending them to the FBI laboratory in Washington, D.C. That lab was able to take her fingerprints. But that was fruitless because there was no record she had been fingerprinted before.

The woman didn’t match any missing-person report nationwide. A couple of people thought she may have been a missing relative, but none of that panned out.

So she was buried by the county in the county cemetery where she lies today – 23 graves in from the edge and three rows from the back.

A couple of the graves have faded artificial flowers or flags or pinwheels or even a tiny stuffed animal. Jane Doe has nothing but gravel and a standard-issue headstone. She’s been dead and unidentified about as long as she lived.

Her case is now the responsibility of Detective Sgt. Michael G. O’Connor, head of the homicide detail for the Pima County Sheriff’s Department. He was still in college when this young woman was killed.

When a new detective is assigned to his unit, O’Connor sometimes gives him or her the files and reports from the 1981 Jane Doe case to see if a new set of eyes working with new technology can come up with something. Nothing yet.

“It’s one of those cases where there’s not much there,” O’Connor said. “But it’s someone’s daughter or sister.”

O’Connor has worked on cases of other people who died without relatives knowing. But this one is different. She didn’t appear to be a transient. And she was so young. ‘I’m sure she is missed,” he said.

O’Connor has a theory of why there is no missing-person report on her. The girl may have run away as a juvenile. Then, after her 18th birthday, she would have automatically been removed from the runaway files. If her parents hadn’t taken steps to relist her as a missing adult, she would have fallen between the cracks.

“Mom and Dad could think she’s in the system, and she’s not,” he said.

He also has thought about what might have caused her to be left dead in the desert.

Her body was found about the time the Pima County Fair was held not far away. Maybe she was involved with the fair or with a traveling carnie. Details of her slaying – including the fact that a carnival was nearby – have been entered into an FBI database in a search for similarities. Was there a serial killer working at carnivals who killed Jane Doe? Nothing yet.

Or maybe someone pulled off the nearby freeway to dump her body. “She could be from Texas. She could be anywhere,” O’Connor said. “Maybe she jumped in with a trucker, and this is where it went bad.”

It bothers O’Connor to know that there is a family somewhere wondering what happened to their daughter, their sister – not knowing that she is buried in a Jane Doe grave in Tucson, Ariz.

“She appeared to be a very young, attractive female,” he said. “She’s the type of person you’re sure someone would be looking for.”

But they haven’t been. For 21 years.

Mark Kimble’s column appears Thursdays. He also appears at 6:30 p.m. Fridays on the Roundtable segment of “Arizona Illustrated” on KUAT-TV, Channel 6. Phone: 573-4662; fax: 573-4569; e-mail: mkimble@tucsoncitizen.com

Our Digital Archive

This blog page archives the entire digital archive of the Tucson Citizen from 1993 to 2009. It was gleaned from a database that was not intended to be displayed as a public web archive. Therefore, some of the text in some stories displays a little oddly. Also, this database did not contain any links to photos, so though the archive contains numerous captions for photos, there are no links to any of those photos.

There are more than 230,000 articles in this archive.

In TucsonCitizen.com Morgue, Part 1, we have preserved the Tucson Citizen newspaper's web archive from 2006 to 2009. To view those stories (all of which are duplicated here) go to Morgue Part 1

Search site | Terms of service