VERNON COUNTY, Wis. -- Nearly 30 years after Jane Doe was found brutally murdered and abandoned on the side of a county road near Westby, the Vernon County Sheriff's Office is taking another look at the evidence. Now they're reaching out to the community to help solve this case.
In 1984, the time before computer technology and DNA testing, investigators did what they could to try to crack the perfect murder.
Retired Vernon County Deputy Sheriff Jim Hanson spends a lot of time in his office at home. Pictures, awards and accomplishments of his four decades of dedication to law enforcement fill the room, but boxes in the corner still remind him of unfinished work.
“I don't care what anyone says,” said Hanson. “There's a certain amount of luck to criminal investigation. Sometimes the most insignificant little thing can lead to an end result that's positive. I think we keep hoping for that in this case.”
Off Old Line Road about four miles south of Westby, lies dark memories for Hanson.
“I can honestly say I've always thought of that when out in this part of the county,” said Hanson. “I've always thought of that night.”
And it’s those memories that have driven Hanson’s search for justice nearly 30 years later.
“It's not a quest for me,” said Hanson. “It is something that as I head into the fourth quarter, it would help me with some form of closure.”
Hanson answered a call back in 1984 that still haunts him today. Three teens had discovered a body of a woman brutally beaten abandoned on the side of the country road. Both of her hands had been cut off.
In the coming days, Jane Doe's clothes, shoes and dentures were all examined. With DNA testing yet to fully develop and fingerprint science virtually impossible with missing hands, investigators said Jane Doe's killer just might have committed the perfect crime.
“You relied in those days on police networks, teletype systems, U.S. mail and as that boundary, so to speak. blew out from Vernon County to Wisconsin to Minnesota, to Iowa and then to pretty soon the Midwest, she was matched to every missing person female in that age group, internationally,” said Hanson.
Now nearly 30 years and more than 400 tips later Jane Doe's real identity still remains a mystery but the Vernon County Sheriff's Office has never forgotten about her.
“Something like this, you would want to have it closed because someone's responsible for her death and it'd be great to at least identify that person, if not bring them to justice for her sake because there's no one out there fighting for her that we know of other than law enforcement right now,” said Vernon County Sheriff John Spears, of Vernon County.
Spears and Hanson have now been working together for more than 6 months to have all of the evidence re-examined. They're hoping today's technology can be used to provide more precise and updated information in the case including her hair and eye color, weight, height and age.
“Today there are experts who can identify the clothing by the stitching, by the buttons, by the patterns,” said Spears. “There’s experts who can tell us maybe where these clothes came from or a timeframe and that’s going to be important. Those things at the time, were not available. Even identifying the dentures or the different things that we maybe have as evidence, those are things that maybe now, through technology, somebody will take the time to look at it, compare it and respond back.”
Spears and Hanson are also planning to take the investigation to cyberspace, a tool they say opens up this case to a completely different world.
“It's never been tried,” said Spears. “It's never been a big push like this with a lot of these, for a lack of a better term, new things like Facebook and that stuff and I'm a believer in that stuff that, that technology is huge. The social media of today is completely different than the social media of 10 years ago or 20 years ago or even 30 years ago and I think we have to take advantage of that.”
Spears and Hanson think today's technology and social media could hold the key to unlocking the secrets of Jane Doe's story.
“We all have our own identities, our own personalities, our own stories to tell, our own background,” said Spears. “That's the mystery here, is we don't know who she is. We don't know anything about her, where she came from or what she did her whole life. We find out who she is, again, that's going to open a lot of doors and I'm positive [that] is going to lead to a good suspect.”
And finally after nearly three decades, investigators can find justice for Jane Doe.
“She's not from Viroqua,” said Spears. “She's not from Vernon County. We're confident of that, so she needs to be taken home. She needs to be returned to her home whereever that may be. Everybody should go home and everybody deserves to be treated like a human being and to have when someone does them wrong, brought to justice."
Spears and Hanson have not worked alone on this case. They've had help from many different investigators and experts along the way as well as the Wisconsin Department of Justice and the Division of Criminal Investigation Cold Case unit.
This is the most up-to-date information we have on Jane Doe: Investigators say Jane Doe was in her 50s to mid 60s when she was found. She had brownish gray-colored hair with blue eyes. She was about five and a half feet tall and weighed around 150 pounds.
Thursday, the Vernon County Sheriff's Office will be holding an event to officially launch Jane Doe's story into cyberspace with Facebook and social media, just in time for the anniversary of when she was found.