Our Precious Hope:
St. Louis’ Little Jane Doe Revisited
*STREAMING FALL 2022*
This is validation that our research was correct. Former Head of St. Louis City Homicide & Cold Case department (Major Shawn Dace), at the screening of our film.
OUR PRESIOUS HOPE, a documentary, follows the journey of the filming crew as they gather the official facts of this 38 year old murder and decapitation case, with interviews of those involved in the initial investigation. They then will organize and work with specialists in the field of DNA to utilize modern forensic techniques to try and identify the young Jane Doe.
The story of the Little Doe starts out on a cold day on February 28, 1983, in St. Louis, Missouri. Two males often described as looters, enter an abandoned Victorian home (at one point renovated into an apartment) of 5635 Clemens Avenue in the city’s West Side Cabanne neighborhood at about 3:30 pm. looking for a copper pipe to fix the drive chain of their stalled car (For Drive Train). One of the men lit up a cigarette and illuminated the headless body of Little Doe who was there in the dark laying on the ground, and missing a head. At first, detectives Herb Riley and Joe Burgoon assumed she was a prostitute or drug addict from the nearby crime-ridden neighborhood of Cabana Courts. It was not until they turned her over that they realized she was actually a child.
The body belonged to an African-American girl, likely between the ages of 8 and 11 years old. Although she had not hit puberty yet, she was tall for her age, standing between 4’10 and 5’61 and weighing about 70 pounds. She may have had spina bifida occulta, a mild (and usually symptomless) congenital defect in which the spine fails to close properly in utero, but this is unconfirmed.2
Jane Doe’s head had been severed after death using a large, possibly serrated knife. No one knows for sure how she died, but Dr. Mary Case, who performed the autopsy, speculated that she was asphyxiated due to the lack of injuries to the rest of her body. Tests of the mold growth on her neck showed that she was likely dead for three to five days before her discovery, but her body was very well-preserved, likely due to the frigid basement that one detective described as “too cold even for the rats”.
Her hands were bound behind her back with a red and white nylon cord, which has been likened to a ski rope or a cord used to dock small boats. There were two chipped coats of red polish on her fingernails. She was nude from the waist down and wearing only a yellow, orlon, V-neck sweater with the tag torn off, which appeared to have been purchased recently. She is strongly believed to have been sexually assaulted, but this has never been confirmed; a white substance on her stomach that resembled semen was negative for sperm cells, and they believe a lone pubic hair on her leg (which yielded too little DNA to be useful) was accidentally left by an officer at the scene. Aside from some streaks of blood on the wall, there was surprisingly little blood or other evidence to be found in the basement, suggesting that she was killed elsewhere and dumped at the location.
Jane Doe’s death sparked one of the most extensive missing persons investigations in St. Louis history. For Captain Leroy Adkins, the first African-American to head the city’s homicide division, it was an opportunity to prove that the police cared about black crime victims just as much as white victims. Detectives canvassed the northwest St. Louis neighborhood where she was found and searched a 16-block-wide area around the abandoned building, even venturing into the sewer system looking for her head. They interviewed hundreds of people, checked with immigration authorities, tracked down all 716 girls on the welfare rolls who matched her description, and painstakingly tracing the nearly 1,000 names provided by the school board. Exactly one year after the body was found, they made the unusual move of publicizing a list of 22 girls in the St. Louis area who attended school in 1982 and could not be accounted for in 1983, but all of them turned up alive and safe.
Adkins also delayed Jane Doe’s burial for nine months, convinced that her parents would eventually show up to claim her body. They never did. At 11:30AM on December 2, 1983, in a five-minute ceremony attended only by detectives and the media, Jane Doe was buried in an unmarked grave in the Washington Park Cemetery. A headstone was later donated and placed on her grave.
The Location And Day Details
The historical records of weather for that address in St. Louis Missouri back up the claims that it was very cold that day. You can also see in the older news photographs that the police in the area dressed warmly and some are even smoking cigarettes as they searched. This is an important note because the weather had an impact on the body conditions and recoverable evidence.
The day falls on a Monday and Ronald Reagan was president. It has been 38 years since this date.
The site and area as seen in the photographs were defunct. The building itself was described as “a crumbling vacant apartment building.” The photographs available can attest to this. Trash strewn about, full dumpsters and the building has opened windows, along with vacant property signs attached to the door. It is north of a previous invisible dividing line that divided cities even after de-segregation. It has been said that this area was predominantly black and there are some crime scene photos showing crowds of young black children watching the investigations. In the photos, the area is crowded with parked cars. The area is off the main loops or well-traveled zones but is close to several known drug areas and a loop notorious for prostitution at the time. Nowadays this area has seen improvements as well as a boost from an older generation and middle class.
This is the best historical outline for this building that I could find. Tues. Sept 23 1975 the building was listed in the newspaper with a notice of delinquent tax liens and then the building was owned by a Bland S. Before that in the 1940’s a man named Abraham Grabel lived there and before that, a catholic man of John Kern Boderick from the 1800s may have owned the home. The building is large, with red brick, and reaches about three stories tall. It has white stone trim and seems to have an overall feeling of once grandeur. Above the door frame in Latin is the inscription Domi the word for home.
The homes in this area on average were built before 1930 and in particular, this area is known to have a great many mansions and large historical buildings. Some well cared for but most in disrepair. It is important to note that St. Louis has a particular abandoned property problem. It causes crime to sky-rocket and though non-so as gruesome similar crimes have happened in these abandoned buildings. It is sadly very common to find raped and tied up women in these buildings. Dog fights, homeless activities, and other crimes. The area was used as a dumping ground for trash and bodies.
People that used to live there in the area described that in the 1940s through 1950s it was a mostly white middle classed neighborhood. Then it became predominantly black.
The building has been demolished and replaced with a similar building in 2002 that provides housing for older adults called the “Leisure Living Community”. It’s unclear if the older building was bigger or if the new building was built just off to the side of the old location.
They did a sweep around the area and canvassed the northwest St. Louis neighborhood but it was in vain. It was said they searched a 16 square block radius around the crime scene, searching sewers, trash cans, and even roofs for the head or any other clues but found nothing useful came up.
Also important to note that the body was found in the building’s basement furnace room. There was a lack of blood at the scene. Save for a few reports that there was a smear on the wall of the stairs and “You could see where there were trails of blood on the stone, where she was brought in there,” said Burgoon. which just concluded she had been carried down. The lack of blood is what makes the detectives certain that she had been killed elsewhere and placed. The fact she was placed here makes detectives think it might have been a local that knew crimes like this occurred in abandoned houses of the area.
The basement was so cold the police report that it was too cold for “even rats”. Thus the body had been well preserved. The photos show a darkened room with stone-like stairs and stone brick walls. The floor is littered and a few bottles can be seen on the ground including a bleach bottle. It’s possible Little Doe was found under debris. Looking at an older video it seems the basement *might* have been accessible from the outside. There were outside stairs going down made of stone and the broken stairs above (before entering) were wooden and breaking. I have seen indoor house pictures featuring walls of blue wallpapers or paint. So, that’s why it’s a bit unclear if the basement was accessible from the outside.
Within hours of her discovery, the police started a media blitz in hopes someone would come forward with a missing child that matched her description. Teletype messages were sent throughout Missouri and Illinois with no results. I’ve read some of these teletypes when nationwide. Months later these were stopped because of the cost. Adkins pleads with the community directly and held meetings at places like Bethesda Temple on Delmar Avenue. “Somebody out there knows something,” he said. “Talk to your neighbors. Talk to your friends. Somewhere out there is a mother without a little girl, a brother without a sister, a neighbor without a little girl running up and down the street.” Adkins continued going to community meetings for some time. Adkins said they corresponded with every police agency as well. When the case was fresh at least 15 officers and detectives worked the case.
They questioned the community and surrounding area. In the old film, I can see crowds of people watching the crime scene area. Many of them are young children just like Little Doe. However, nobody knew anything.
Then they went through the local school rosters and some surrounding areas. “We’ve even gone through school absentee records and haven’t come up with anything” – Captain William E. Relling (Juvenile Division). With no results here wither this is what leads police to the idea that maybe the victim wasn’t a local. It is important to note here that most of the school systems were disorganized and not very reliable in tracking children’s names and whereabouts. School systems at the time got money for each child enrolled. Kids who were no longer in school were still being kept on records. Brenda Schlegel was upset about that public information and made it a point to harass the newspaper to write about it. They wanted the public to know that only “some” of the schools had issues but not all.
The board of education Fire all School secretaries the year before (Per Burgoon)
Then a search of the area began to look for any evidence. Jerry Thomas and Frank Booker were only some of the police officers who searched the area. Looking at an old photo they searched every nook and cranny. Even dumpsters. The local area can be seen with large piles of trash. They had over 100 men searching at one point on Wednesday after the body was found on Monday.
The case garners national attention and it’s very obvious that detectives worked as hard as they could. Adkins pleaded with the black community for information and wrote ads in at least three black newspapers and magazines. They even put the word out in the prison systems in hopes someone would be mentioned.
Groups in the northwest St. Louis neighborhood, begin a campaign to get the vacant buildings occupied, securely boarded, or torn down. A protest is held by the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) outside of the building Grant Williams an organizer said about 40 people showed up. Skinker-Page-Union-Delmar (SPUD) organization discussed the vacant building issue. It helped at 7:30 pm at the New Mount Gideon church. It was an important topic that Little Doe was found in a building that had not been boarded up. Myrtle Hartfield of SPUD said that SPUD had been working with the Land Reutilization Authority to get the buildings boarded up. Little Doe also prompts community action to offer free fingerprinting services to young children in the area. Calena Glasby and organizer of a neighborhood said “The kids talk about everybody’s anxious for it to be solved”
Joe Burgoon seeks help from the FBI Academy In Quantico, VA in 1986 (A unit that operates a national database for unsolved killings.) however at the time only Little Doe’s case was unique.
Kristin Cole Brown of Child Find, a non-profit national organization that tracks down missing children. “Ms. Brown said the organization had recorded only one similar case – the July 1981 abduction of a 6-year-old Hollywood, Fla., boy whose head was found three weeks after he disappeared. (Adam Walsh the son of the TV Show host “America’s Most Wanted”) Adkins said the case of the beheaded girl may go unsolved if the girl was brought here from some other area or if a relative was involved in her death. Child Find did try to offer a 1,000 reward to anyone who could identify her. They probably should have then and now offered a reward for ANY lead.
With this, the case winds down. Little Doe had lain in the cold room for nearly 10 months unclaimed.
Nearly 30 years after Little Doe was found Adkins said the case gave him nightmares. Adkins was the first African-American homicide commander. It was important to him to try to solve this case because he wanted to show the black community they were cared for. “Besides finding out who she was, the other thing that really bothered me was, ‘Did we do everything we could in our investigation? Did we miss something?” Adkins kept a chart on the wall of his office listing details of the Little Doe case and it included dozens of index cards with names of people that had been questioned.
Detectives spent years trying to solve the case following just wisps of leads and stab into the dark. In the later years of the investigation, they would call families of missing children even remotely resembling the Little Doe just so they could rule them out. At least eleven families gave DNA. When one family didn’t the investigators went so far as to search their trash for anything they could use as DNA evidence.
I’ve consistently found news articles through the years of the detectives doing their best to keep this case in the public eye and very obviously trying to solve it. In 2016 Burgon again asked the FBI to run the case again. Burgon even used to send new bulletins across the country every year on the anniversary of her discovery. In 1990 he went on Oprah Winfrey’s TV show to discuss the case. Adkins occasionally writes letters to local newspapers to remind people of the case.
The Use of Psychics
One of the more puzzling sides to this case is the frequent use of psychics. Looking only through the lens of today it seems absurd but during the time I can imagine the police had nothing to go on and were desperate. They also wanted to show the public they cared. Unfortunately, this cost the police the only pieces of evidence to LIttle Doe’s case. When the authorities approached psychics, one said her head would be on a boat in the Gulf of Mexico. Another in Florida requested to see her sweater and the nylon bounds, but they were lost in the mail. Even another one, Sharon Nolte, believed she was a Chippewa Indian named Shannon Johnson and her killer was a drifter living in southern Texas. All the psychic claims led to dead-ends or were disproven.
Other leads have been less conventional. Grasping for clues, Burgoon once sat in on a séance in a Maplewood home. Under dim candlelight, the detective passed around photocopied fingerprints of Jane Doe to a table full of psychics. As the clairvoyants channeled the spirits, Burgoon sat in the corner and observed.
“The psychics put their hands on the fingerprints and would shoot straight up in their chairs like they got a jolt or something,” remembers Burgoon. “At the end of the meeting, they told me to call the Coast Guard. The head is on a boat in the Gulf of Mexico.”
The séance wouldn’t be the last time homicide detectives looked to the paranormal for help. In 1994 Burgoon and Adkins agreed to appear on Sightings, a nationally syndicated television show on the occult and the supernatural.
Connected by phone, the homicide detectives sat in St. Louis with notepads at the ready while a psychic in Florida entered the mind of Jane Doe. Producers filled in the backdrop with Hitchcockian theme music and shadowy, slow-motion footage of children at play. The product was vague enough to seem eerily real, but it only harmed the investigation.
Prior to the show’s taping, detectives mailed the psychic the bloodied sweater and the nylon rope used to bind Jane Doe’s hands. They never got them back. The evidence was lost in the mail. I heard the TV show was supposed to have mailed it back but they did it improperly and the items were lost.
A group of psychics arrived to view the body in the cold room but nothing came of it.
Little Doe had been found laying on her stomach under trash and with her hands bound behind her back. Wearing only a dirty yellow Sweater. Little Doe had the unfortunate honor of being the only decapitated eviction in the nation of the time.
At first Little Doe was mistaken for being a prostitute or drug addict from the Cabanne Courts, a nearby housing project. It’s hard to see why someone would confuse a child’s body with an adult but Little Doe was bigger than average. Though only between the ages of 8-11 years old (it is possible she was older), she is around 5ft to 5 ft 4 inches tall and around 70 to 75 pounds. Even though she was thin it has been observed that was she was well-nourished. Little Doe had dark skin and it was of dark to medium complexion. Described as well cared for and not homeless her stomach had been empty at the time of her death so we know she had not eaten within 8 hours of her death. Little doe was reported to have not gone through puberty and did not have developed breasts. Her fingers had chipped nail polish in shades of red and at least two coats. There were no signs of previous abuses prior to this on her body.
A white substance found on her stomach was initially believed to be semen, but further tests showed it contained no DNA.
A public hair on her leg was also found but detectives are confident this belonged to someone on the scene after she had been found.
Little Doe’s sweater was described as a once-bright yellow orlon with long sleeves. There is no manufacturer’s label. Often described as dirty there are several photos of the sweater available. The tag seems to be a darker color and possibly sewn in on the four corners. in one older newspaper, it described the label as ripped out. Does not seem to have any major dirt drag marks on it.
The nylon cord is red and white and heavy. A newspaper clip suggests that this is similar to a ski rope or a boat line. Another news article of the time says it could have been jumping rope or a boat roap like that used to moor small boats.
The autopsy (autopsy number 441-83) contrary to current popular belief failed to disclose a cause of death. Little Doe is oft-reported that strangulation was her cause of death. However, there is no conclusive evidence that this is so. The decapitation itself could have been a cause, strangulation, or suffocation. No other bodily injuries were there. * I have heard she may have had a bruise on her chest. No scars or abnormalities, no prior broken bones, and she still had her appendix. They think she had been dead only 2-3 days before her body was found. However important note some sources say the basement and the weather were so cold she was frozen through and the exact time of death could not have been pinpointed at the time. It wasn’t until the mold testing was there a proper answer. The weapon may have been an ax, a large knife. Detective Riley said “Her head appeared to have been cleanly cut off, it was like somebody took a carving knife to her.” large serrated knife. I also was not able to find a definitive document to say if she had been sexually assaulted but in general it seems to be thought that a one-time rape had occurred.
Missouri Botanical Garden performed mold tests on her body which determined she had been killed within five days of her discovery. It had been concluded that she was raped by some articles but in others, I found contrary statements so this is debatable. Little Doe’s fingerprints, footprints and DNA had been collected.
I can’t find any newspaper article that mentions this but there may have been some marks on her thighs that correspond with a dragging motion.
Burial And Reburial
Little Doe laid for 9-10month of her body unclaimed in the cold room. In the meantime, she did not rest in peace because people came to view her body often. She was treated like a spectacle. Once a State Legislator and a group of psychics arrived demanding to see the body.
A memorial service was held publicly and about 60 area residents attended at the New Mount Gideon West Baptist Church, 725 Goodfellow Boulevard on a Sunday. Only a few weeks after finding her.
Finally on Dec. 2, 1983, in a pauper’s grave on the southern side of Washington Park Cemetery, Little Doe was laid to rest for a little while anyway. It was a dreary day and very muddy and she was carried to rest by only four pallbearers. Little Doe’s casket was wooden and white and on top was a donated faux spray of pink, white and yellow flowers. It was said the ceremony only lasted for five minutes. Capt. Leroy Adkins, Sgt. Herb Riley, an Unnamed person from the medical examiner’s office, and a representative from the Congress on Racial Equality attended that service. Rev. John W. Heywood presided.
After burial in May 1984 students raised money for a white headstone which reads… “The saddened hearts were healed in knowing the pain of life is over and the beauty of the soul revealed.” but this was placed on the wrong grave. There her body was lost to the times and defunct cemetery.
In 2009 police detective Tom Carroll tried to exhume the remains for further testing but was unable to find her. Three bodies were next to her marker but none hers. It took a lot of manpower and volunteers, led by Calvin Whitakera (who was helping to restore the cemetery and is a funeral director, contractor) to help find her again. Eventually, photographs of the original funeral provided by Ed Sedej, of Belleville (original photographer of the funeral) were shown by a reader Charles Fuchs to his niece, Abby Stylianous, a research associate in the Department of Computer Science & Engineering at Washington University. Then she and fellow researchers located the grave based on the old photos and aerial images from the U.S. Geological Survey. They were correct and they found her buried in her original wooden casket with donated faux flowers on top. Little Doe lay inside a body bag wearing the donated pink and white checkered dress.
After testing was completed Little Doe was returned to the Garden Of Innocents a nonprofit organization that cares for the unidentified lost victims. She was scheduled for burial at 10 am Feb. 8 at Calvary Cemetary In the Garden Of Innocents. It was a cold and snowy day. Decon Peter Gounis preceded and several mourners arrived for the ceremony, unlike the first time she had been buried. Little doe had a white casket again but this time metal adorned in golden trim and brass angels on the corners; with a spray of real pink roses and white lilies that was donated on top. A golden and white angel teddy bear sits upon her casket. The ceremony was reportedly about an hour-long and included a choir and bagpipes. The Funeral director was Calvin Whitaker who helped find and transport her remains and the pallbearers were detective Dan Fox, Joe Burgoon, and Ron Henderson, and Tom Carroll. The detectives wondered if the mourners at the funeral included anyone related to the girl but it seemed most were strangers.
Body Exhumed and New testing
In around 2014 they were able to start testing again after finding her grave. A bone sample was sent to North Texas State University, which has an advanced DNA testing program that can match results to the database of the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, a resource center operated by the U.S. Justice Department.
Little Doe was also examined by the Smithsonian Institution and St. Louis Medical Examiner’s Office, testing for DNA and minerals to narrow her origins based on the water she drank. The mineral tests or stable isotropy analysis revealed the girl probably spent her life in one of 10 southeastern states: Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas, Tennessee, and the Carolinas. Sometimes this list is a little more extensive or shorter depending on the article.
Area Resident (1983)
The Documentary Crew
Director/Writer/Producer/Executive Producer/Editor/Musical Score
Co-Executive Producer/Production Manager
Director of Cinematography