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A woman's body was found in a van in downtown Yakima in 1977. Investigators are still trying to find out who she is

  • 9 min to read

Kristen Drury walked through the grass toward a flat headstone in West Hills Memorial Park. She was looking for another one nearby, smaller and simpler.

She needed to find plot 13b in the Lower Apostles Garden, a cluster of markers to the left of the entrance of the private cemetery in West Valley. Map in hand, Drury located plot 15, took two big steps to her right and looked down.

“So she’s here,” Drury said.

Crouching close to the ground, Drury reached out with her left hand, feeling for gaps in the turf and a small square of rough concrete. She gave up after a few minutes. It might be there under the grass and dirt, but she wouldn’t find it without a long metal prod and a shovel.

That didn’t surprise her. It had been nearly 15 years since Drury last stood here and saw what resembled a temporary marker, used until a permanent stone could be placed.

Then and now, its words — Jane Doe — haunt her.

Drury was still new to the Yakima Police Department’s forensic lab that summer. Today, she is its supervisor. A scientist among investigators, she spends most days working alone in a darkened room, piecing together or pulling apart evidence that will answer crucial questions and put criminals behind bars.

On July 29, 2004, Drury stood at Doe’s grave as authorities exhumed her body. Despite unique features such as a surgical scar on her abdomen and a small star tattoo on the top of her right thigh, she hasn’t been identified since she was found on July 25, 1977. Detectives hoped by collecting her DNA, they could finally give Doe her name.

Doe’s death was horrifying.

Discovered in the back of a van abandoned in a fenced Yakima Hardware Co. parking lot at 309 S. Front St., she had been struck with something above her left eye and the back of her head, strangled and sexually mutilated. She was face-down, the top of her partially decomposed body covered by a blue shirt and a green sweater placed over her torso. She wore nothing below her waist but socks.

Estimated to be from 18 to 30 years old, Doe was a woman of undetermined race with brown hair and brown eyes, between 5 feet 3 inches and 5 feet 9 inches tall. She weighed around 140 pounds.

More clothing was found outside the van nearby — white panties stenciled in red lettering with “Scott-Lillie-2H” — along with a Forever Yours candy bar. Investigators also found clothing scattered near the business, including a pair of blue pants, a homemade yellow dress, a white sock with blue and red trim and a pair of black boots.

Investigators said the green delivery van, which belonged to the nonprofit Opportunities Industrialization Center of Washington, had not been driven for months. OIC was then at First and Walnut streets and used that parking lot, along with hardware store employees. The van’s rear door could be latched but not locked, and Doe’s body had lain inside at an angle, her head against the seat on the far right side and her feet touching the left rear corner of the van, for at least two weeks, possibly a month.

She didn’t die there. Someone put her there.

Though authorities sent her fingerprints and tissue samples to an FBI lab in Washington, D.C., her DNA to the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification and have entered her information in two national unidentified persons databases, Doe is the only open Yakima Police Department case involving unidentified remains.

Drury wants to change that.

Forensic science has made astounding advances since Doe’s discovery. Today, DNA can be pulled from a fingerprint. And DNA can be used to generate an image that is remarkably similar to a photograph of the donor.

“It’s a great tool. It changed the whole landscape of law enforcement,” said Detective Sgt. Tim Bardwell, head of detectives for the Yakima Police Department.

Drury has requested funds to submit samples of Doe’s DNA to GEDmatch, a genealogy service with profiles of more than a million people, or another genetic genealogy site to identify relatives in hopes of contacting them and confirming her identity.

That could cost anywhere from $3,000 to $5,000, depending on the research involved.

“The request has been made. I’m waiting for further direction at this point,” Drury said. “As soon as I get the OK, it could within the next few months we could have that back.”

Genetic genealogy — combining DNA extraction and traditional genealogical research to establish the relationship between individuals and their ancestors — could identify Doe.

“We would sure like to know who she is,” said Drury, who doesn’t think Doe was from the Yakima Valley.

Though West Hills may be far from Doe’s real home, Drury is glad she rests in such a lovely place. On this clear early spring evening, light dappled the rolling hills and towering ridges of Yakima County’s western reaches.

A gap in a row of tall hedges opened a vista to a valley beyond Doe’s grave, which is surrounded by others.

“She’s in a good spot. She’s by lots of people,” Drury said.

A different downtown

For Drury, who is 39, learning about the Yakima of Doe’s time has surprised and — at times — shocked her. Hearing stories from older friends and relatives, Drury has become familiar with a section of downtown that catered to a crowd seeking cheap drinks, sex or something else.

Roy Willson, the officer who got the call of a deceased person that hot Monday morning, remembers it well.

“I got called there because someone reported a foul odor. The minute you drive up, you know what it is,” Willson said. Several workers at the Yakima Hardware Co. had reported a bad smell in the area of the fenced parking lot on the north side of the business.

He knew immediately even though he was still kind of a rookie, having joined the force in June 1975 after his discharge from the Army. Most of the people who hung out in the area along Front Street south of Yakima Avenue were older and not in good health, he said, so he was called out fairly often on unattended deaths.

Willson walked the beat in the downtown area, mostly around the Front and First street area between Chestnut and A Street (now Staff Sgt. Pendleton Way). The two blocks were a forbidding maze of taverns, pawn shops and cheap hotels.

“It was a rough area,” he recalled.

Growing up in Yakima, Willson had “cruised the Ave” as a teenager, from The Freezer drive-in near 11th and Yakima avenues to the YMCA at Naches and back, a circuit that could take up to an hour depending on who was out, the level of trash-talking and the amount of flirting.

Willson and his buddies had circled the “forbidden” areas to gawk at the prostitutes who strolled along North First Street to A Street to Front Street to Yakima Avenue and around again. Walking through the area as a beat officer was altogether different.

Carrying only a nightstick, a six-shot revolver and a flashlight, Willson was responsible for regular walk-throughs of every business and building in the two-block area. He shook every door several times a night to make sure they were secure. He became familiar with every person, good or bad, and knew when new people came to town and when the regulars left.

In the dim reaches of Stockman’s Tavern, pimps watched and waited as the women walked round and round the block.

“Ninety percent of them weren’t from here,” Willson said. “Most of those girls were probably missing from someplace. They all had phony names” and no ID, he added. “Most of them probably started as runaways or something happened to them. Girls from here wouldn’t be kept here. They’d go to Seattle or Portland.”

Alleys were littered with cigarette butts, bottle caps and empty bottles of cheap fortified wine. Pinball machines, pawn shops and card games competed for business with the Arcade on South Front Street and its “adult” material.

Rooms above the taverns rented for a few dollars. Regulars didn’t carry cash; it was too dangerous. Any checks they had coming they had sent to their favorite hangouts.

The area was off-limits to military personnel who came into town while assigned to the Yakima Firing Center — now the Yakima Training Center — Willson said.

“But like anything else, there were always those who wouldn’t abide by the rules and the military police would have to be called in once in a while or would even be assigned to walk with you on a shift,” he said.

Back then, it took 45 minutes to find the owner of a license plate — if you were lucky. Police relied on physical evidence, witnesses and memory.

“Technology has changed so much since the 1970s. There was no internet, no cellphones. If you took fingerprints, there was no computer to do a search,” Willson said. Fingerprints were all on cards and had to be compared by hand.

On July 25, 1977, he waited at the scene until the duty sergeant arrived and took some photos of Doe with the department’s only camera. A funeral home came and took Doe’s body. Willson wrote up his report.

The investigation was out of his hands after that. A detective took over to go through teletypes for any runaways and missing women and take the phone calls that started coming.

One caller said Doe was a woman living with her boyfriend at Congdon Orchards in West Valley. A notary public remembered a couple who came to her office with divorce papers and thought the woman might be Doe. One man thought it might be his ex-wife. Another gave the name of a dancer at the Alaskan Corral, a topless club on the south side of Yakima Avenue.

A criminal investigator for Olympic National Park reached out because a woman had been missing from Mount Rainier National Park. The owner of the downtown Topic Cafe thought she had seen a girl fitting the description hanging out in the North First Street area. The girl had lived at the nearby Roza Hotel at one point and more recently had been hanging out with members of a motorcycle gang, she told investigators.

All along, police had no portrait of Doe to share. Her body was in poor condition, so a composite sketch was never made.

Without a name or a face, it was if she never existed. Investigators suspect she came from somewhere else and may not have been in town for long.

At one point, members of the Green River Task Force asked about Doe, Willson said. Some from the same task force helped process the scene when another Jane Doe was found near Parker Dam in February 1988.

None of their efforts provided answers in those cases, though Green River Killer Gary Ridgway was caught and convicted years later. He is serving a life sentence without parole at Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla.

Time passed and Willson moved up at the police department, becoming a captain before serving as interim chief from 2002-03. He retired in September 2003.

Wistful, almost apologetic that he couldn’t do more to find out who Doe was, Willson admires Drury’s persistence and is confident she will succeed.

“It just amazes me that cold cases get solved once in a while,” he said.

Finding Doe’s killer is another matter, but identifying her is the priority for Drury.

“Just giving her a name, just providing that information, is the goal here,” she said.

The past and the present

Drury, who grew up in Yakima, joined the police department in July 2003 after receiving a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and a master’s degree in forensic science.

Among the department’s cold cases, number 77-9000 stood out.

“Initially when I came here, one of the things I was tasked with was going through old cases and seeing if new technology could help in that process,” Drury said. “This was one of the cases I came across.

“The literal name of it is Jane Doe. I wanted to try to figure out who she is. We decided to start exploring the option to do an exhumation.”

Exhumation was necessary for DNA because investigators didn’t collect genetic material as part of crime scene procedure in 1977. And evidence had disappeared, which is not uncommon when so much time has passed.

Beyond the paperwork, Drury didn’t have much to start with.

Working with then-coroner Maury Rice and current and former investigators, she started looking at Doe’s case file in June 2004. The exhumation happened that July.

Though the cheap pressed wood coffin crumbled during excavation, Doe’s body bag was intact. Upon opening the bag at the morgue, Drury noticed masses of hair. She collected those, some fingernails and a midsection of one of Doe’s femurs, which was used to create her DNA profile.

State forensic anthropologist Dr. Kathy Taylor oversaw the process, which also involved a skeletal analysis, X-rays and photographs.

Drury researched the name stenciled on the panties; no luck. Even with Doe’s DNA profile entered into national databases and websites, she remained nameless.

“We have run down things in other ways (with) a lot of dead ends,” Drury said.

Drury and investigator Mike Blankenbaker collected DNA samples from people in the area who had potential missing persons.

“The other important thing is getting DNA from family members. I have swabbed many family members,” Drury said.

She has been contacted over the years by NamUS, a national information clearinghouse and resource center for missing, unidentified and unclaimed person cases, about possible matches.

Part of the challenge in identifying Jane and John Does is while websites such as NamUS house information about many cases, comparing that information to other databases is cumbersome and sometimes impossible.

Those databases aren’t complete, either.

According to a National Institute of Justice Journal article by its editor, Nancy Ritter, there are more than 40,000 sets of human remains held by medical examiners throughout the United States that cannot be identified through conventional efforts. Ritter said only 6,000 of those cases—15 percent—had been entered into the FBI’s National Crime Information Center database.

The NCIC is an electronic clearinghouse of crime data accessible to criminal justice agency nationwide, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

It currently includes 8,155 records on unidentified persons nationwide, according to Carri Gordon, program manager for the Washington State Patrol Missing and Unidentified Persons Unit. That total includes 174 entries for unidentified human remains in Washington, with the oldest from 1956 in Snohomish County and the most recent from May 17 in Tumwater.

Of those, 46 are female, 104 are male and 24 are of unknown gender, Gordon said.

Submitting Jane and John Does to databases accessible to the greatest number of law enforcement agencies, such as the NCIC, is critical.

“A lot of these cases are about interagency cooperation and communication,” Drury said.

Drury likes to tell others she has a weird memory. She remembers the names of all the victims whose cases she has worked.

Her Doe could be identified, Drury said. And she should be.

“Somebody is missing her,” she said.

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