Updated: Apr 12
Imagine having a loved one go missing and wondering where they are and what happened to them. Now imagine a body is found elsewhere that nobody can identify. Much of the time, these missing persons cases and John and Jane Does end up matching. Sometimes they don't.
Jane and John Does are sad, but also fascinating because of all the possibilities of what the deceased’s life was like. Here are five John and Jane Doe cases.
1. Mostly Harmless
If you’ve never read Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books, you should. If you have, you probably recognize the phrase ‘mostly harmless’ as the titular Guide’s only description of planet Earth (as well as the fifth book in the series). Our first John Doe used the phrase as an alias while hiking in the Appalachians, but the public is unaware of his real name.
On July 23, 2018, two hikers at Noble Campground in Ochopee, Florida spotted a yellow tent near a communal picnic table. They called out to anyone in the area but, when they got no response, decided to check in on the tent. Inside, they found the body of a man.
First responders on the scene found a beige and green shirt, shorts, underwear, a Columbia baseball cap, tent, sleeping bag, hiking poles, fuel cartridge, and a water bottle. The man had no ID on him, and it appeared he had been living the park. He was a white male, thought to be between 35 and 50 with “perfect teeth.” He was estimated to be 5' 8", but only 83 pounds. He had graying, “salt and pepper” hair and, at the time of his body being found, was thought to have been dead for several days.
On August 13, it was confirmed that the man had checked into several hostels under the name ‘Ben Bilemy.’ But investigators soon realized this was an alias when they ran a search of the name and found no matches. Hikers along the trail submitted photos of the man when he was alive — and there are plenty of them. The Collier County Sheriff’s Department said the death hadn’t been ruled suspicious, but the homicide unit had been called in to help, presumably for some extra hands. They also confirmed the man, who also went by trail nicknames ‘Denim’ and ‘Mostly Harmless,’ had checked into hostels as far north as New York.
Early on in the investigation, numerous hikers claimed to have spotted him. Alleged sightings go as far back as December 2017, a full 13 months before his body was discovered. Witness testimony leads investigators to believe the man has ties to New York and Louisiana (specifically Baton Rouge) and may have worked in the technology industry. Some hikers claimed to have full conversations with him that lasted for hours. One witness was astonished because the man was hiking the trail with no GPS or detailed maps. But because hikers use trail nicknames — presumably to avoid confusion or mix ups — even those who talked with him extensively never found out his real name.
So who was the man the public only knows by nicknames and aliases? If you read the testimony of people who claimed to have seen him, it’s clear they viewed him as an inexperienced hiker. (He apparently earned the nickname ‘denim’ because he wore jeans on the trail, which aren’t recommended for serious hikes due to moisture and temperature issues.) So did he begin hiking the previous year due to a major life change, like divorce or terminal illness? The latter could explain why he weighed so little when he died. On the other hand, he could have done what many of us do and continued on the trail when he shouldn’t have. Some believe he was in denial about how malnourished he was getting and wanted to keep going, despite likely signals from his body telling him to stop. Personally, I know I’ve been guilty of this many times in the past, and ended up regretting it.
Another thing web sleuths will often note is NAMUS. The government run database of missing and unidentified persons was used in an attempt to identify ‘Mostly Harmless,’ but no match was found. Anecdotally, in most missing persons cases I’ve looked into, their information was entered into the system within a matter of days. This leads me to believe the man known as ‘Mostly Harmless' was never reported missing. If his loved ones thought he’d just gone off on his own, it makes sense that they wouldn’t necessarily file a report or even think anything of it when he didn’t contact them for awhile. They could still believe he’s simply out hiking, never hearing the story of the John Doe who was found in Florida and never suspecting anything was wrong.
On February 22, 2019, the Glens Falls Police Department in Glens Falls, New York said authorities in Florida believed 'Mostly Harmless' may be from Lake George, New York. Hopefully this will bring about new tips and, consequently, information that leads to the man’s identification. With so many details on the life of ‘Mostly Harmless,’ I believe this case has a good chance of being solved sooner rather than later.
2. Lake Pontchartrain Jane Doe
Having grown up in south Mississippi, I’ve driven and ridden over Louisiana’s Lake Pontchartrain several times, and it can be unsettling. At one point, all you can see is open water in front of you and it’s easy to let your imagination run wild with all the ways you could end up in a watery grave. Sadly, in 1986, Lake Pontchartrain did become the resting place of a woman who, to this day, remains unidentified.
The woman’s nude body was found by fishermen on June 19 in an area of the lake close to Slidell, Louisiana. She was believed to have been dumped in the lake between Bayou Lacome and Rigolets Road, an area of about 20 miles. A plastic bag had been duct taped over her head, and a 22 pound weight was tied to her neck. She was thought to have been dead for 36 hours before being discovered. Her cause of death was asphyxiation.
The woman was white, approximately 5' 4" and 126 pounds. She had red hair and several scars. She was thought to be between 20 and 30 years old. A marking on her left hand suggested that she might be married and a wedding ring had been there at one point. She was also 7 to 12 weeks pregnant.
At one point, investigators believed the Lake Pontchartrain Jane Doe could be Lisa Sexton. Red headed Lisa was 14 when she disappeared from her home in Ohio in 1981. But according to her page on the Charley Project, Lisa’s mother last heard from her in 1984, a year after the Lake Pontchartrain Jane Doe was discovered. Doe’s body was exhumed in 2003, and Lisa Sexton was officially ruled out via dental records. Investigators also tried to identify the woman through her silicone breast implants, but couldn’t find a serial number.
In 2004, a new clay reconstruction of the woman’s face was done, showing what she may have looked like in life. Two tips resulted from the reconstruction, both leading to the same missing woman. However, she was ruled out when authorities realized she was in jail when the body was found.
So, who was this woman? The number one theory, both by investigators and online sleuths, is that her killer is her unborn child’s father. On a personal note, I’ve looked through dozens of missing persons cases. In every single one I’ve read about involving a missing or murdered pregnant woman, the baby’s father was either convicted or, if nothing else, the number one suspect. He could have been abusive and worried that a child brought into the relationship would take attention away from him. He could have killed the woman after learning she was pregnant because he didn’t want to be a father. Or maybe he killed her in rage when he discovered the baby wasn’t his. It probably would have been too early to tell paternity for sure, but perhaps he was away on business or doing something else at the time the baby was conceived that led the timelines not to match.
But even if one of these things happened, why didn’t he report her missing? Again, this is anecdotal, but most people who kill their significant others still report them missing.
The case of the Lake Pontchartrain Jane Doe has gone unsolved for over three decades now. With all the new technology that wasn’t around in the late 1980’s, hopefully the loved ones of this woman will get some answers soon.
3. Annandale Jane Doe
Christmas is supposed to be a time of joy. Many people associate it with happy memories of spending time with family and friends, getting presents and even drinking cider or hot chocolate. But for residents of the Washington, D. C. suburb of Annandale, Virginia, the Christmas season in 1996 turned dark when a woman's body was found in a local cemetery.
The body was of a white female, between 50 and 70 years old. She was approximately 5 feet tall, 157 pounds, and had short, curly red hair. She had laid on a plastic tarp before taking her own life and was surrounded by a variety of paraphernalia, including an 8 inch decorated Christmas tree, earning her the additional nickname “Christmas Tree Lady.”
The woman was dressed in winter wear typical of the place and time of year, though it’s speculated much of it was high end and expensive. In addition to clothing and jewelry, she wore a medic alert bracelet that read said “no code, DNR, no penicillin.” Two $50 bills and three handwritten notes accompanied the body. One of the notes had a strange poem on it: 'Now I lay me down to sleep // soon to drift to the eternal deep // and though I die and shall not wake // sleep sweeter will be than this life I forsake.'
The other two notes were identical; one was addressed to the coroner, one to the cemetery. They read: “Deceased by own hand…prefer no autopsy. Please order cremation with funds provided. Thank you, Jane Doe.”
I find this note especially interesting. After a bit of research, the cheapest cremation I could find was a direct cremation, which could still range from $700 to $1200. Maybe this cost was lower 20 years ago, but $100 couldn’t have possibly been enough, even with no added funeral costs. I wonder if Jane Doe thought of this too.
Police distributed a composite sketch through the media but still got no answers. On Christmas Eve, a Virginia newspaper reported an autopsy would be performed after the body was identified. Since she remains unidentified and I can’t find any other confirmation of an autopsy, I’m assuming the police have honored her wish for no autopsy. However, who knows if this might change if her identity is ever uncovered — or if an autopsy would even reveal much of value due to 20 years’ worth of decomposition.
Sadly, the decades following have provided few answers. Many believe she’s from the Virginia or D. C. area because the cemetery (and the area of the cemetery) where she was found wasn’t known to drifters. Others believe she was from outside the U.S.,* and that’s why she’s never been identified.
Another point of discussion in this case is an 8 inch scar on the woman’s abdomen. Many believe it’s from a C section, but others say there’s no way that could be what it is, that it doesn’t resemble one at all. For what my personal experience is worth, I was delivered by C section, and my mom’s scar is similar to the photo floating around the internet that is supposedly of the dead woman’s scar. I’ll link to it here, but keep in mind that it is a photo of a dead body and may be disturbing.
Other speculation suggests that she might have a child who died, and that’s why she chose to take her life in an area of the cemetery for infants and children. She also could have had a terminal illness — AIDS seems to be the common theory — and didn’t want to go on any longer. A grave near the woman’s body contains the remains of 9-year-old Brandi Ballard, who died exactly seven years to the day before the Annandale Jane Doe. Her name also relates to Doe’s death, who took her life by drinking brandy, taking Valium, and taping a plastic bag over her head. Did our Doe choose this date and method of suicide for a reason? Or is this simply a bizarre coincidence?
This body is clearly a bit different from the others. Due to the signature on her suicide note, it seems this woman didn’t want to be identified. Maybe we should honor her wishes and let things be. On the other hand, she still may have loved ones out there who are wondering where she is and what happened to her.
*This girl, as far as I can tell, is the only one who discusses the theory regarding Brandi Ballard, which I discuss in the second to last paragraph. So she might have come up with it on her own, and I didn’t want to refrain from giving her proper credit.
4. St. Louis Jane Doe (aka ‘Precious Hope, ‘Hope,’ and ‘Little Jane Doe’)
All murders are sad, but this is one of the more disturbing cases I’ve heard. The St. Louis Jane Doe endured a gruesome death, and both her identity and killer have gone unknown to the public for over 30 years.
On February 28, 1983, two St. Louis men entered a vacant apartment building looking for a pipe to fix their car. They lit a cigarette lighter so they could see in the dark...but instead of a pipe, they found a body.
The body was of a black female who was estimated by police to have died five days earlier. She was thought to be between 8 and 11 years old, was approximately 4' 10" and weighed 61 to 70 pounds. The only item of clothing she wore was a yellow, long sleeved sweater. She had spina bifida, a condition of the spine that causes damage to the spinal cord and nerves. Symptoms can range from mild to severe, and sometimes patients show no symptoms at all.
The young Jane Doe had endured a brutal death. Her hands were tied behind her back with a rope, and she had been sexually assaulted before being strangled. There was a gaping hole between her shoulders. Her head had been removed with a large bladed knife and, to this day, neither the knife or the head have been recovered.
Police conducted an extensive search, but found little information. They asked school districts in the area for a list of missing students, but found no match. When they’d exhausted all leads of the sort in St. Louis, they started to think she wasn’t from the area. (Due to the lack of blood around the crime scene, they had already concluded that she had been killed elsewhere and her remains were dumped in the abandoned building.)
Her body lay in a morgue for several months before she was buried in December. At first, there was no headstone above her grave. Then a group of students in Illinois started a letter writing campaign, and a monument company donated a stone.
Her remains were exhumed in 2013 for DNA extraction, but this almost didn’t happen. Due to an error, the headstone had been placed over the wrong grave. Fortunately, police found the grave using a photo taken on the day of her burial.
Once the body was exhumed, isotope testing narrowed down her possible home to a handful of states. According to the tests, she may have been from the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Louisiana, Texas, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Indiana, or West Virginia.
Police sent her sweater and the rope her hands had been tied with to a psychic. They not only got no results, but never received the sweater back. The psychic later claimed it had been lost in the mail.
So who was the St. Louis Jane Doe, also known as ‘Precious Hope’ and ‘Little Jane Doe’? Many theorize that her parents or other family members were responsible for her death, and consequently never reported her missing. However, there were no previous signs of abuse on her body, so others are skeptical. Other theories include her being the victim of human trafficking or an illegal immigrant.
At one point, the prime suspect in the case was Vernon Brown, who was convicted of murdering a 19-year-old woman and a 9-year-old girl in the early 1980’s. However, Brown was executed in 2005, so if he was responsible for Little Jane Doe’s death, he took that secret to the grave.
I’ve seen several online sleuths from the St. Louis area who claimed this case really affected the community. For their sake, as well as the sake of Little Jane Doe and whatever loved ones she has out there, I hope this case is solved.
5. The Boy in the Box
The Boy in the Box was the youngest of our unidentified Does, yet his case is the oldest on this list. It’s the most heavily investigated case in Philadelphia history, yet it has gone unsolved for over 50 years.
The boy, also called ‘America’s Unknown Child,’ was found by a college student on the morning of February 25, 1957. His naked body had been wrapped in a blanket, placed in a J.C. Penney bassinet box and dumped in the woods on the side of a road.
Upon investigation, he was found to be white, between the ages of four and six. He had brown hair and blue eyes. His hair had been hastily and crudely cut shortly before his death. He was severely malnourished, and bruises on his body pointed to abuse. He had been in the box for at least a few days, maybe even weeks. He had died from massive head wounds.
At first, police believed the case would be solved quickly. They laid the body out in a morgue so citizens could view and possibly identify him. Multiple leads came in, but everything ultimately lead to dead ends.
Soon after the body was found, 10-year-old New Jersey native George Knowles saw the poster in a police station when he went in to register his bike. This discovery led to a lifelong fascination with the case and, in 1998, he and several others founded americasunkownchild.net. The site aims "to raise public awareness about the Boy in the Box case via the Internet."
That same year, the Boy in the Box was exhumed to take advantage of new DNA technologies. But the body was so disintegrated by that point that very little DNA could be extracted. When it came time to rebury the body, investigators thought his original burial site in a so-called “potter’s field” was too neglected, so they reburied him elsewhere.
Soon after, there was a huge break in the case. A woman, identified by some sources as ‘M’ and others as ‘Martha,’ came forward and told investigators she knew exactly who the boy was. ‘M’ or ‘Martha’ had told her psychiatrist her mother had bought the boy a year earlier. Yes, she boughtthe boy. ‘M,’ who was 11 at the time, claimed both she and the boy were sexually abused by her mother, and that the mother killed him in a rage one day after he vomited. ‘M’ also says she accompanied her mother to bury the body.
However, her story couldn’t be substantiated and investigators ruled the lead out. Some of them keep in contact with her, believing she could know more — but she hasn’t said anything else since.
So who was The Boy in the Box? Much like in the St. Louis Jane Doe case, it’s speculated that his parents or legal guardians are responsible for his death. There is physical evidence that he was an abuse victim, which adds credibility to this idea. There’s also a theory that he may have been raised as a girl due to his hair being cut so hastily before his death and evidence that his eyebrows may have been plucked. In addition, there’s speculation that he was a foster child or in a group home that covered up his disappearance, or that he was an illegitimate child, which was much more stigmatized in the 1950’s than it is today.
In 2016, two authors researching separate books pooled their research and eventually believed they’d traced the boys’ family back to Memphis, Tennessee. They believed they’d found his brother and father, even obtaining a DNA sample from the former. They submitted this information to investigators, who decided not to use the DNA and said they’d have to make sure the theory was worth investigating before they went any further. There have been no updates since.
In 2018, genealogist Barbara Rae-Venter, who helped identify the Golden State Killer in April of that year, said she was working on the ‘Boy in the Box’ case. Maybe this decades old mystery canfinally be solved, a possibility that seems to grow more slim with each passing year.
If you have any information about the open cases on this list, contact information will be down below. Let me know your thoughts on these cases in the comments. If this post has left you too depressed, check out my post on 5 cold cases solved years later to give you some hope.
Collier County Sheriff’s Office
Kevin O’Neill: 239-252-9300
or Kim Cherney: 239-252-0050
Case number: 18-234970.
Sheriff’s Office non emergency line: 239-252-9300
Lake Pontchartrain Jane Doe
LSU Faces Laboratory
Annandale Jane Doe
Fairfax County Crime Solvers 800-673-2777 703-691-8888 Fairfax County Police Department 800-673-2777
703-691-2131 NCIC Number: U-989549567
ME/C Case Number N1996-41257
St Louis Jane Doe
St. Louis Regional Crime Stoppers: 866-371-8477
Detective Joseph Burgoon, St Louis Police Department
Case Number: 83-29584
St. Louis Police Department: 1-314-444-5822
NCIC Case Number: U470002710
NamUs Case Number: 3199
NCMEC Case Number: 1104360
All photos in public domain or protected under Fair Use. (https://fairuse.stanford.edu/overview/fair-use/what-is-fair-use/)