Solving mysteries takes time, persistence


Staff Writer

Sunday, March 10, 2019

It's often darkest just before dawn.

I've been writing about missing people and unsolved murders for more than a decade. Success stories are rare. I've helped reopen a few cases, resolved a few and seen arrests made a couple of times.

But for the most part, it's just more pain for the families of the missing and murdered. By the time I write a story about someone, their case has been passed through several hands or not been handled at all. Either way I'm digging up hurt.

Take this case for instance: No. 2234. Named after the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System file number is the body of a white female found three decades ago in a wooded area near Rocky Mount.

I wrote about her about a year and a half ago. The case is so old that local authorities didn't know about her. I don't begrudge them. There has been a lot of administrative turnover since 1986.

And there were few clues to go on even then: Bones, tattered clothes and not much else.

Next to nothing is known about her. She was between 20 and 30 when she died. Her body was discovered March 11, 1986, by surveyors. She was believed to be dead for only six months.

She had long, curled brown hair that may have been dyed red. She was 5 feet 4 inches tall.

One of the best clues to her identification is a healed fracture of a rib and backbone. To be repaired, the injuries wouldn't have required major surgery — just time; but family members should know about the incident, according to information in the NamUs report.

The clothes she was wearing at the time of her death could help identify her. She had a black T-shirt with a “Seagram's 100 Pipers Scotch Whiskey” logo, black or gray Levis corduroy pants size 34 and sandals with white bands.

That might seem like a lot, but it's really not. No. 2234 reminds me of Jane Doe 95-7000. Her skeleton was found in 1995 in a wooded area of Jacksonville. Her case name was a combination of the year she was found and that she was the 7,000th police report that year.

As a crime reporter in the military town from roughly 2007-13, I wrote about her often.

Years after the skeleton was discovered, Capt. Gary Dixon still had a composite sketch of her on his office bookshelf.

Dixon, a disheveled man who smoked too much, was the most talented detective I've ever known. I used to joke that if something ever happened to me, I wanted Dixon on the case.

Dixon was determined to identify Jane Doe 95-7000. He wanted to figure out who she was before retirement. He made Herculean efforts to identify her. He had her sketch posted to America’s Most Wanted website.

Subway tokens found near the skeleton were issued by the New York Transit Authority so Dixon had the State of New York include her sketch in its tax booklets that went out to every taxpayer in the state.

One white left shoe had been found with the skeleton, so Dixon and his detectives researched shoe designs. They determined what year she likely went missing based on the shoe's manufacture date.

In one last attempt before retiring around 2010, Dixon sent the bones to North Texas State University where scientists were experimenting with drawing DNA from bone marrow.

He didn't hear anything, retired and went into teaching a new generation of law enforcement officers at the local community college.

I moved to the Twin Counties five years ago and spoke to Dixon only once or twice since then.

He called me a week ago. The bones he sent to Texas a decade ago have been matched to a woman missing for 23 years.

Randi Stacey Boothe-Wilson, 33, disappeared in 1994 from New York. The bone DNA was matched to DNA on a stamp she licked before she vanished. The investigation into who killed her is now underway.

I asked Dixon how he felt knowing she had finally been identified. He turned it around on me, saying I probably knew. He was right.

It's good to know that a mystery that so long haunted both of us could be solved with science, old-fashioned police work and the trait I'm beginning to identify most in myself: persistence.

It's hard for me to pray given all I've seen covering the depravity of criminals, but it is my fervent wish cast out across the galaxy that one day I'll get a similar call about No. 2234.

I'm learning through examples like Gary Dixon not to give up hope.

Anyone with information as to the identity of No. 2234 is asked to call the state medical examiner at 800-672-7024 or their local law enforcement agency.