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The St. Louis Jane Doe: Unidentified since 1983

Updated: Jan 25, 2022

Today I’m going back and revisiting another case I covered awhile ago when I was still doing lists. Out of the cases I covered back then, this is one of the ones that stuck with me the most. Let’s talk about the girl only known as the St. Louis Jane Doe.

Also knows as “Little Jane Doe” or “Hope,” the St. Louis Jane Doe was found on the afternoon of February 28, 1983 in St. Louis, Missouri. Two men were looking for a pipe to fix their car, and their search led them to an abandoned apartment building at 5635 Clemens Avenue. As they approached the buildings basement they lit a match, presumably to be able to see. But what they did see wasn’t a pipe, as they were hoping— it was a human body.

The body was of a female, lying face down and wearing only a yellow sweater. Her hands were tied behind her back with what appeared to be a jump rope, and she was missing her head.

The men contacted the police, who initially thought the body was that of a prostitute or drug addict. But when they turned the body over, they saw the woman — or, rather, girl — hadn’t even gone through puberty.

The girl has been estimated to be between 8 and 11 years old, and had been dead anywhere from two days to a week at this point. She was about 4 feet 10 inches without her head, but was estimated to be between 5 feet 4 and 5 feet 6 in life — tall for someone her age. Her sweater was missing its manufacturer’s label. (newspaperarticle_002) It hasn’t been explicitly stated anywhere, but I suspect this was done purposefully by her killer in a further attempt to conceal her identity. She also had no scars or other identifying factors on her skin.

At first, it wasn’t clear if being decapitated had been what caused her death. It’s now believed she was either suffocated or strangled before being decapitated and dragged to the basement, her head being removed with an ax or knife. Early newspaper articles said she’d been sexually assaulted, but I’m not sure if there was any solid evidence of this. A 2014 article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch said it was unclear if she was sexually assaulted.

The St. Louis Jane Doe’s body was kept frozen for a few months. She was buried in December 1983 in a pauper’s grave in Washington Cemetery, paid for by the St. Louis Police Department. In May 1984, a group of junior high school students from Illinois paid for a headstone for the grave.

Early on in the investigation, x-rays showed no broken bones or other signs of abuse. She also appeared to be generally well cared for. Police assumed the case would be solved quickly, that the parents or other loved ones of this girl would come forward or that the body would match with an existing missing persons report. But that never happened.

In the beginning, bulletins about the Jane Doe were sent out to all 50 states, but nobody ever responded. This happened for 12 more years before it reportedly got too expensive. Still, investigators travelled the country chasing other leads. Because the girl was black, they put out ads in every African American newspaper and magazine in the country. They also did an extensive search of school attendance records in the St. Louis area. This took about seven months and left them empty handed, leading them to believe the girl wasn’t from the area.

A few months after the murder, a woman told police she’d just met the girl’s killer, and that he’d shown her a human skull and machete in his apartment. Police investigated, but the machete they found couldn’t have cut off a human head. They also discovered the man got the skull from one of his teachers.

Another man said he bought a skull at a souvenir shop that he was told was of a Native American. However, he thought it could actually be the St. Louis Jane Doe’s still missing skull. But the skull was tested and proven to be much older.

Police also enlisted the help of psychics on several occasions. The girl’s sweater and the rope used to tie her hands were mailed to a psychic, but the psychic claimed they were lost in the mail. As far as I know, they’ve never been recovered. The use of psychics in police investigatons is pretty controversial, at least with online sleuths, and this decision has been especially lambasted.

In 2001, a Kansas City woman was convinced that the St. Louis Jane Doe was not black, but Native American. She spent $20,000 of her own money investigating the case privately, including $4500 for a DNA test. Police didn’t seem to take her claims seriously. According to The Riverfront Times, the test came up “negative,” which I assume means the claim that the Jane Doe was Native American was proven incorrect.

Unfortunately, the St. Louis Jane Doe’s head has never been found. This makes identification even harder — which a lot of people suspect may have been the killer’s intention. Investigators don’t think they’ll ever find it.

In 2010, investigators wanted to exhume Jane Doe for further testing on her remains. But there was one problem — the headstone donated by students in 1984 had been put on the wrong grave. Three bodies in the cemetery were exhumed, but none of them were of Jane Doe. The St. Louis Medical Examiner said not to do anymore digging until they could figure out which grave was hers.

Starting in 2012, a team at Washington University began looking for the grave. Using a GPS as well as old photographs, namely one taken at her burial in 1983, they were able to pinpoint the location. In June 2013, her grave was finally found and exhumed.

Once Jane Doe was exhumed, scientists began isotope testing on her remains. Isotopes are two elements that have the same number of protons but a different number of neutrons. Scientists can use isotopes in the human body — like hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen and oxygen — to discover all sorts of things about a person.

As had been speculated in the 1980’s, the testing revealed Jane Doe was probably not from the St. Louis area. Instead, she may have been from Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas, Tennessee, North or South Carolina. She also may have spent a lot of time in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Indiana or West Virginia.

This later testing also showed Jane Doe had spina bifida. Spina bifida occurs when neural tubes in the spine don’t close all the way, resulting in damage to the spinal cord and the nerves in the area. There are different types that range in severity; symptoms can be as severe as not being able to move your legs at all, or you may not have any symptoms. Obviously we can’t really say how severe St. Louis Jane Doe’s symptoms were; she may not have even realized she had it.

Jane Doe was scheduled to be reburied in Garden of Innocents at Calvary Cemetery on February 8, I assume of 1984. Funeral director Calvin Whitaker bought a coffin for her even before her body was exhumed. Find A Grave still lists her as being buried in Washington Park, but that could be wrong.

In 2019, the St. Louis Police Department started a cold case unit. The department hasn’t gotten a tip about the St. Louis Jane Doe in over a decade, but still has hopes her case can be solved. Says Lt. Scott Aubuchon of the St. Louis Metro Homicide Division:

“An 8, 9, 10, or 11-year-old girl doesn’t go missing without people taking notice. We are now 37 years later and I think if anyone was reluctant before to talk now is the time to come forward…If anyone knows a little girl, maybe a family member, who they suddenly lost track of and disappeared we want to know. We are interested in anything.”

Homicide detective Dan Fox thinks the girl’s killer was from the St. Louis area because the building where her body was dumped would have been hard to find unless you knew the area. It seems like many other police think the case hinges on someone coming forward with what they know.

So what happened to the St. Louis Jane Doe? In my research, I came across four serial killers that people speculated could be involved.

Dennis Rader, better known as The BTK Killer, killed 10 people in Kansas between 1974 and 1991. He was caught and arrested in 2005 and later given 10 life sentences.

Vernon Brown strangled 9-year-old Janet Perkins to death with a rope in 1986. After being caught, he also confessed to killing 19-year-old Synetta Ford in 1985. He was convicted of and sentenced to death in both murders, and was executed in 2005.

Alton Coleman and his girlfriend, Debra Brown, killed eight people over a two month period in the summer of 1984. Their killing spree spanned across the country, with victims in Wisconsin, Virginia, Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky. They were caught on July 20 in Indiana.

Coleman was convicted and sentenced to death. He was executed in 2002. Brown was convicted and sentenced to death for one of the murders. She was granted clemency in 1991, but sentenced to death for another one of the murders. In 2019, her sentence was commuted to 140 years in prison, where she remains today.

But who was the St. Louis Jane Doe, and could her killer have been a little closer to home? Several people online have speculated that she was actually killed by a parent or other relative. This might explain why she was potentially never reported missing. Others suggested her family came to the United States as refugees or illegal immigrants. Most seem to believe her killer either destroyed her skull to get rid of evidence or kept it as a trophy.

There is plenty more speculation over on Websleuths, a lot of which concerns missing persons cases that might be a match. Most of the speculation I’ve mentioned was found there, and you can read the thread here.

final details

The St. Louis Jane Doe, also known and “Hope” or “Little Jane Doe,” was found in St. Louis, Missouri on February 28, 1983. She was a black female, between 8 and 11 years old, 5 feet 4 to 5 feet 6 inches tall and 61 to 80 pounds. She had been decapitated, wore a yellow sweater and had two coats of red nail polish on both hands. Her hands were tied behind her back with a red and white rope. Because she was missing her head, no artists renditions or possible facial reconstructions are available.

So that’s all I have for you today on the St. Louis Jane Doe. It seems like this is a case that has really haunted a lot of the investigators. People come forward in cold cases all the time, often with information that leads to the case being solved. Hopefully that will one day happen here.

If you have any information that could lead to the identity of the St. Louis Jane Doe:

St. Louis Police Department: 1-314-444-5822

case # 1983-29584

St. Louis City Medical Examiner’s Office: 1-314-622-4971

National Center for Missing and Exploited Children: 1-800-THE LOST (1-800-843-5678)

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