Mystery in the morgue: Butler Co. coroner’s quest to ID Jane Doe

Mystery in the morgue: Butler Co. coroner’s quest to ID Jane Doe
(Source: Butler County Sheriff's Office)

CINCINNATI, OH (FOX19) - Two faces have been haunting the Butler County Coroner's Office. One is a man who's death has been a mystery since the late 1990s. Another is a woman, whose identity has eluded authorities despite some distinct features. Her body has been in the Butler County morgue since 2015.

Despite having solid samples of DNA on both the man and woman, their identities remain a mystery.

"For us, it was Hardy Boys, and oh my gosh, it was intrigue," said Randy Wilhelm, whose three sons discovered the woman's body in the woods in March 2015.

The Wilhelm brothers -- Parker, Cole, and Caleb -- found a human skull while hiking in a wooded area of West Chester, just minutes behind their home.

"I just can't imagine, what someone's been going through, if they even know that they're missing," said Cole Wilhelm.

It was during one of winter's last gasps when his brother Parker Wilhelm tripped on a stick and noticed something unusual.

"And I fell and I kind of looked back like what'd I trip on and I saw kind of the top, sticking out of the snow," he said. "We started digging it out and once we pulled it out, it was shaped like a human skull."

Animals had scattered the rest of her bones all around the field.

"There was an old wire fence back there, so she'd also have to have climbed over that," said Liza Wilhelm.

Westchester police said she was found on a black vinyl-backed fleece blanket, so she may have been seeking shelter for the night.

Despite DNA samples, no one's been able to identify who case number 15-174 is, otherwise known as Jane Doe.

[RELATED: John Doe has been a mystery since May 1997]

The boys brought the skull home, and their mother was a bit freaked out at first.

"This doesn't happen to everybody," said Liza Wilhelm. "It's someone's loved one, you know, it's sad that she either didn't want to be found or that she was so estranged they didn't want to look for her, or maybe they don't know how to look for her, or have the resources. I can't imagine that -- being a member of our family and not knowing."

Randy Wilhelm called Westchester police. When an officer came, the family realized the gravity of the situation.

"It surprised us what he did," said Randy Wilhelm. "He turned the corner and saw the skull, he took his hat off and he knelt down in front of it and he prayed, which is I think pretty remarkable, it reminded me that someone died here."

Butler County Coroner Dr. Lisa Mannix recovered 205 of the woman's 206 bones.

"She was essentially, completely skeletonized," said Mannix.

With no flesh left, there was no way to test for toxicology. Mannix said they don't know how the woman died.

Dr. Beth Murray, a Forensic Anthropologist at Mt. St. Joseph University, examined the skeleton and found nothing to suggest any trauma. They estimate she'd been there six months to a year.

"She could have come from anywhere," said Mannix. "Though it's my job to determine cause and manner, in this case, I'm really more concerned about identity."

Westchester police ran the DNA they were able to collect from her bones, and could not find any match with a criminal record.

"My concern is, this is someone's mother, sister, daughter, and they don't know where she is," said Mannix. "Maybe they don't know she's dead."

She had no identification on her, wore light clothing, a red striped shirt, and blue Faded Glory jeans. She also had black S&S shoes on, shoes worn by people who tend to have jobs where they're on their feet a lot.

Mannix entered all of her information into the National Unidentified Persons System website.

"I think Dr. Murray told me there were 1,800 women who would have fit that profile that are missing in that database throughout the U.S.," said Mannix.

So, based on skull dimensions Murray took, a forensic artist in Arizona came-up with two images of what Jane Doe might look like, right down to her hair style.

The Wilhelm family said they saw parts of her hair on the ground.

"Yes, so we had a hair mat," said Mannix. "So we had the length and color of her hair, pretty much exactly."

Mannix said she could have been missing since 2007.

"When you look at the rendering, it's not going to look like someone you know well. It's going to look like that lady that used to come in the grocery store, or the person that used to come to the bank, or I used to work with someone like that," said Mannix.

The woman's lower jaw bone and a unique, expensive dental implant is something the coroner hoped would solve the case, leading officials all the way to Switzerland to the implant's maker, Straumann.

"Dental records are still the gold standard in identification," said Mannix. "But you have to know who you're looking for."

It turns out, this woman's implants were put in prior to 2003. Newer dentures would have more information embedded, so again, officials struck out.

The American Dental Association ran an extensive article in their national paper, which helped rule some people out.

"We've been able to exclude a lot of people, simply because they didn't have that unique dental work. We have all the information we need. We just need a match," said Mannix.

A BIC lighter found in her denim purse, licensed to the Professional Bullriders Association from 2007, produced only vague results.

"The closest was Columbus, Indianapolis, then it was Texas, Georgia, Maryland, I mean, take your pick," said Mannix.

It's also hard to say how long she may have been missing.

"And as someone reminded me, not every missing person wants to be found," said Mannix.

Without a DNA match, Jane Doe remains the mystery in the morgue.

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