Chattanooga law enforcement are still searching for the identity of a woman they believe was murdered by a serial killer
Leave the riverfront and Chattanooga’s downtown. Merge onto Highway 27. Pass the high-rises and Finley Stadium. Turn away from Lookout Mountain as you take the fork onto Interstate 24 towards I-75. By then, you’re almost to the scene of a crime that has lain unsolved for 17 years.
Under the billboard just past Exit 180A, Chattanooga law enforcement pulled the decomposing body of an unknown woman from a tributary below I-24. Today, her bones lie in a cardboard box in the Hamilton County Medical Examiners office, unidentified and unclaimed. And the databases that law enforcement could use to bring this woman’s killer to justice are broken.
Both the Hamilton County Medical Examiner’s Office and the District Attorney’s Cold Case Division said Chattanooga’s law enforcement has done as much as it can to find the identity of this woman—a woman we’ll call “Chattanooga Jane” for this story.
They investigated suspects. They uploaded her profile into national databases. Short of someone coming to them with a tip, they have done as much as they can for Chattanooga Jane. And yet, despite all of our society’s technological and scientific efforts, this woman is perilously close to falling through the cracks.
The Crime Scene
Tom Bodkin got the call at 6:03 p.m.
The then-Forensic Anthropologist for Hamilton County had two years of experience on the job that day on March 29, 1999 when he was told that a group of workers clearing brush from the side of I-24 had discovered the body.
Today, the brush has grown back, and saplings about two inches thick choke out a clear picture of the tributary, filled with greenish-grey murky water leading to Chattanooga Creek. The scene is filled with the white noise of the highway punctuated with the rumble of downshifting big rigs. The world is lonely at this crime scene. Three birds dip in the sky while the sun hangs low over Lookout Mountain in the distance.
The crime scene photos from that day in 1999 showed that the steep slope from the highway down to the tributary was bare. In the gathering dusk, the woman’s body floated in a raft of trash, surrounded by empty wine bottles and Styrofoam. The only thing visible of the woman was her exposed chest, leathered by the elements.
Bodkin would later write that the body was tangled in fallen tree limbs.
Eventually, the crime scene was lit with floodlights, and a diver in full SCUBA slowly approached the body, wading through the waist-deep water, approaching from the downstream, carefully clearing trash. It was then that the diver discovered the woman only wore a pair of red shorts and a strip of cloth tied tightly around her neck.
A basket was lowered from a backhoe arm, she was scooped up and was transported by ambulance to the Hamilton County Forensic Center for analysis.
On May 13, 1999, Bodkin released his full consolation.
Cases Dotting the Highways
Mike Mathis—then a sergeant in the Chattanooga Police Department overseeing the Cold Case Unit—said in 2004 that he convened a meeting between area law enforcement, including the FBI, Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and Georgia Bureau of Investigation, to consider the case of Chattanooga Jane along with a string of other unidentified bodies that have turned up on the side of highways in the area.
Over ten years before the workers discovered Chattanooga Jane, another woman was found on the eastbound side of I-59 wearing Calvin Klein jeans, size 9 lace-up black boots, and a white gold pinky ring with a heart. The red-haired young woman—she was estimated to be as young as 16—was found just miles from the Alabama line.
About 200 miles north, a young pregnant girl was found dead along the highway in Greenville, Tennessee. Down around Dalton, Georgia, a man was found along I-75. There were two females found at the same exit ramp as I-75 runs through McMinn and Bradley Counties, with one body found on the northbound side, the other on the southbound.
With the bodies hinting at a pattern, is Mathis saying Chattanooga Jane was the victim of a serial killer? “We can’t say it’s not because of the similarities with the interstate,” he said.
The FBI has a name for these types of cases: Highway Serial Killings. The FBI says these murders are most likely committed by serials killers working in the trucking industry, preying on transient people living on the edge of society—such as prostitutes.
The FBI admits that these are devilishly hard cases to solve. The victim could have been picked up in one state, killed in another, and dumped in a third. The cases—more than 500 back in 2009—cross police jurisdictions, and the victims are often left nameless.
But the cold case investigations at the Chattanooga PD were often interrupted with more pressing investigations, like cop murderers. “Unless it’s fully dedicated, it won’t work,” Mathis said.
Today, after leaving the police force to work as a consultant for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, Mathis returned to head the District Attorney’s Cold Case Division, working cold cases full time. Since the division started operating in May of 2014, it has, in the words of Mathis, “resolved” five cases out of the approximately 175 unsolved homicides in Hamilton County.
Regarding Chattanooga Jane, District Attorney Neal Pinkston said the city sits an hour-and-a-half drive from four states, “Which puts Tennessee in a center of a hub.” In a 100-mile radius, there are upwards of 10 cases of the bodies of women dumped on the side of the highway.
But what sets Chattanooga Jane’s case from other highway trucker serial killing cases is that she was dumped in a populated area. “If a trucker is involved, it usually in a rural area,” Mathis noted.
But Chattanooga law enforcement has not had someone come forward locally, making Mathis think this case is more regional. The Medical Examiner’s office has a file about a quarter-inch inch thick of excluded cases—and that was before national databases put everything online.
Examining The Body
Chattanooga Jane is like tens of thousands of cases across the nation: an unidentified dead, a person found dead without any form of identification. Maybe it’s a murder victim or a homeless person that died. Regardless, their bodies remain unidentified and years pass.
According to a report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, coroners and medical examiners received 10,328 unidentified dead between 1980 to 2004—one of them being Chattanooga Jane. The National Institute of Justice in 2007 said of “The nation’s silent mass disaster” that as many as 40,000 unidentified bodies lie in coroners’ keep across the nation.
Bodkin thinks about the case often when he passes the spot driving along I-24. He’s moved on from the medical examiner’s office and now works as a spokesman for the Hamilton County Health Department. He spoke to The Pulse not in his official capacity as a spokesman, but as a citizen. He still feels an obligation to this woman.
“Once the case starts to slip into the annals of the forgotten, the only people looking for the person is their family,” he explained. “She was somebody’s little girl on Christmas morning, and now she’s in a box, totally unknown.”
The only things that Bodkin and the rest of the medical examiners office could discover about the woman were what clues her body left. She had dark hair, stood about five feet, four inches tall, and weighed about 130 pounds.
For his anthropological report, Bodkin de-fleshed her remains, removing it from her skeleton, and discovered more clues about her past.
Drawing from his experience examining known skeletons, Bodkin discovered that Chattanooga Jane was a white female. By the way her leg bones bent, he believed that she was bow-legged.
Healed injuries to her left hand, two feet and nose suggested she had lived a hard, perhaps blue-collar life. Her teeth were in bad shape, with only 12 teeth left, and those badly decayed.
He discovered trauma on the right greater horn of the hyoid bone. When a person is strangled, the bone that floats behind the jaw is often broken during the struggle for life.
Bodkin once had an unidentified body that was later identified. It took six years, even though the woman had connections. She wore Italian-made jeans, had expensive dental work and an IUD, something only installed by an OB-GYN. That was a clear indication that, somewhere, she had a record.
Eventually, her records were uploaded into a database and she was found.
Technology Has Drawbacks
In recent years, law enforcement has turned to the technology of databases to solve cases similar to Chattanooga Jane, but there are drawbacks. Nationwide, these databases are often underutilized by law enforcement, as not all the old cases get uploaded. Families may search for years. Murders sit unsolved. And murderers roam free.
To track down potential highway serial killers, the FBI turns to its Violent Criminal Apprehension Program—known as ViCAP—as a way to pick up similarities between several cases. The program is supposed to compare details between violent crimes in hopes of discovering a similar suspect.
But according to a report by investigative journalism outfit ProPublica and The Atlantic magazine, the ViCAP system is woefully underutilized by law enforcement.
There are approximately 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the nation, yet only 1,400 or so contribute to the system, according to the report titled “The FBI Built a Database That Can Catch Rapists—Almost Nobody Uses It.” ProPublica and The Atlantic estimated there should be 4.4 million entries in ViCAP, but there are only 89,000.
This isn’t a recent problem. In 2007, the Bureau of Justice Statistics published a report saying the FBI’s National Crime Information Center Unidentified Person File had missing cases because law enforcement submitted information on a voluntary basis in every state but California, which had a law that made uploading cases mandatory.
In the same year that the report came out, the Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs started a database in July that compared cases of missing persons with the cases of unidentified dead. The website was named the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System—NamUs for short. The profiles of 11,621 unidentified dead have been uploaded to the publically viewable website. As a result, 821 unidentified were found to be one of the 20,917 missing person profiles.
Todd Matthews is more than the Director of Case Management and Communications at NamUs. The former factory worker—who ensured the quality of automobile parts and discovered the identity of an unidentified woman discovered in Kentucky in 1999 by using the Internet—uses those skills to work with the 25 people at the University of North Texas who upkeep the national database.
But many entries in NamUs are not completed at the hands of law enforcement officers trying to get by with the bare minimum. Within the system, there are hundreds if not thousands of people with the same few descriptions such as “brown hair, five-feet-and-so-inches tall, last seen one night leaving in a car.” Some law enforcement fill out a bare-bones profile so that they get the free DNA testing that comes with creating a case profile in the system.
Sometimes, compiling a complete record is more difficult than it firsts appears. “My mother doesn’t know how many dentists I go to,” Matthews said. And in the case of Chattanooga Jane, her fingerprints were lost because her body had decayed too far.
Recently, Matthews uploaded his own profile to the NamUs system. He wanted to demonstrate just how many returns a profile generates. In 2013, James Todd Matthews went into the NamUs database as a 43-year-old white male with red hair from Tennessee. Despite being very much alive and very much identified, the NamUs database suggested Matthews matched 22 cases across the country.
“We can make super use of the system,” Matthews said. Despite incentives, it’s still a difficult task. For the last several years, the Help Find the Missing Act has been kicked around Congress, which would require law enforcement to use the database. Most recently, Democrat Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut reintroduced the bill Sept. 30, 2015 where it was referred to the Committee on the Judiciary.
DNA of Last Resort
In a government grant separate from NamUs, the University of North Texas also records DNA and uploads it to the Combined DNA Index System for Missing Persons, or CODIS.
The medical examiner sent Chattanooga Jane’s right femur to the University of North Texas April 2015 for her DNA to be captured and uploaded into the CODIS system—one of the last steps Chattanooga law enforcement can do for this case.
Matthews often tells law enforcement to call him a year after submitting the material—that’s how long it takes for the waiting list of DNA samples to be extracted, uploaded and analyzed by the computer. Still, as Hamilton County Medical Examiner’s office said, it’s a faster system than the FBI’s.
Forensic Technical Specialist Allison Leitch uploaded Chattanooga Jane’s profile on NamUs in 2010. A year later, she uploaded the woman’s dental records. Last year, the Regional Systems Administrator noticed that Chattanooga Jane’s profile only had one form of DNA—mtDNA extracted by the FBI in 2004. She recommended extracting and uploading another type of DNA, y-strs.
Leitch has uploaded all eight of the unidentified dead the county’s medical examiner office keeps into the database. So far, NamUs has not helped solve any of the cases. Meanwhile, the people working there are helpful, Leitch said. When its time to get DNA extracted, “They send you the shipping labels.”
The Medical Examiners office is a low, two-toned grey building on Amnicola Highway. It was here where Chattanooga Jane was transported, where she was examined. Chuck Hall, the chief medical examiner for Hamilton County, was working at the office when Chattanooga Jane was brought in. He was working nights, though, and he wasn’t assigned the case. 1999 was a tough year, a time when Chattanooga had the most homicides. At one point, there were nine homicides in nine days. “We were covered up,” Hall said.
In some ways, discovering the unidentified is easier with databases. But in others, it’s gotten more difficult. “Families don’t stay in contact with each other like they used to do,” Hall said. Some families don’t have pictures of the missing member, or they give a vague description, like a height range of eight inches.
In the middle of January, the Medical Examiner’s office received an email notifying them that Chattanooga Jane’s recent DNA was completed and uploaded into CODIS, the Texas Depart of Public Safety’s State DNA Index System. Eventually her DNA will be entered into the National DNA Index System, which could yield a match.
Until then, law enforcement has to turn to old techniques, waiting for tips, going over the case, publishing it in the media in hopes that someone comes forward. “Somebody out there knows something,” Mathis said. “Somebody out there is missing their mother or their sister.”
Chattanooga Jane lies past the doors with the biohazard signs, past the two rooms where the Medical Examiner Office conducts autopsies. In the back of the building is a door to a smaller room where remains are kept in narrow cardboard boxes on grey metal shelves.
On the door, someone printed out and taped a copy of Shakespeare’s epigraph above the list of the remains.
Good friend for Jesus sake forbeare,
To dig the dust enclosed here.
Blessed be the man that spares these stones,
And cursed be he that moves my bones.
The room is crowded, illuminated with a troffer of fluorescent lights. Hamilton County Medical Examiners keeps 75 remains, used to compare to other skeletons and remains, some of which are loaned out to graduate students.
In the middle, at eye level, is Chattanooga Jane. Her box, marked in neat, black letters reads “C99-440 W/F Unknown Homicide.”
Once she has a name, law enforcement can learn where she came from, why someone possibly wanted her dead, finally leading them to the person who has yet to face justice for killing Chattanooga Jane.