Wisconsin News

Catching her killer: Justice for Jane Doe - Part 1

VERNON COUNTY, Wis. -- It's a cold case that has left the Vernon County community puzzled for nearly three decades.

In 1984, Sheriffs Deputies found the body of a woman brutally murdered and abandoned on the side of a country road near Westby.

Today, her identity and her killer still remain a mystery, but investigators have never given up hope that one day they can close the case.

It's what some say is as close as it gets to a perfect murder. Jane Doe's killer found what seems to be a fool proof way of hiding her identity while also leaving no traces of his own identity behind. Even nearly after 30 years, it's a case one investigator just can't seem to let go of.

Once a year, retired Vernon County deputy sheriff Jim Hanson makes a trip to the Viroqua Cemetery.

"I think the symbolism is you're essentially leaving the 'porch light on' so those folks aren't forgotten," said Hanson. "That's what it is to me anyway."

Planting solar lights is a little thing he does to remember his parents, friends and people he cares about.

"It's just a little one day project for me and I just included Jane Doe in it," said Hanson. "I guess for 28 years I've kept hope, myself as well as many others that left some hope out there that maybe she can be identified and her killer found."

And it's Jane Doe's story that has kept Hanson searching for justice for nearly three decades.

"I'm just not sure anyone deserves to die in the way this lady did first to be murdered and then to be left in a desolate county road with no identity," said Hanson. "I don't think anybody deserves that."

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In 1984, Hanson served as a patrol deputy for the Vernon County Sheriff's department. He thought the night of May 4 was just going to be any other night on duty.

"The call came through dispatch," said Hanson. "In those days there were no cell phones, there was no 911, it was pretty much land-lines. Giving thought to a car accident was more routine in those days, thought maybe that was what it was."

Three teenagers had found a body off Old Line Road, about four miles south of Westby. Hanson was the deputy who answered the call.

"Then I could see the body up by pretty close to that tree up there," said Hanson. "So, I stopped right about here, could see the U-turn in the gravel at that time. Then I got out of the car and walked over here and walked in the grass."

It was the body of an older woman abandoned on the side of the road. Her head bludgeoned. Her hands severed at the wrists.

At the time, investigators thought Jane Doe's killer just might have committed the perfect crime.

"With severed hands gone, finger print science was a long time science, it may have been very well likely a reason that her hands were removed," said Hanson.

With DNA testing still emerging, trying to identify who she was became a nearly impossible task. Still, investigators did what they could to try to piece together what happened.

They examined her clothes, her dentures and tire marks in the road. Soon after, investigators determined they were looking for a man who killed Jane Doe, cut off her hands, dumped her body and then disappeared.

Then they waited for anything to point them in right direction.

"You kind of expect that in those first few days, suddenly you're getting phone calls of 'my aunt', 'my somebody's' missing, and that didn't occur."

Soon days turned into weeks, weeks into months and months into years. Throughout the remainder of his career, Hanson and investigators worked through more than 400 leads with all of them ending up in disappointment.

"If you would have told me 28 years ago that in 28 years you would be taking another look at this, I just would have thought this would have been long solved," said Hanson.

Hanson retired in 2011 and now voluntarily spends his days taking another look at the case.

"There's a piece of me that because I answered that call, 28 years later it's still relatively in the same status and now that I can focus on it, I'm just willing to volunteer and attempt to work the sciences and the evidence," said Hanson.

And maybe, with a second look, new technology just might be able shine a light in the right direction.

"One of my hopes is that with the advent of 28 years is just maybe some young lady out there or grandson is looking for a long lost grandma that just never had an explanation for," said Hanson.

The last tip investigators received on the case was back in 2010. Investigators were working on matching Jane Doe's case with an Iowa man but like the other 400 tips investigators have worked through for nearly 30 years it still lead to another dead end.

The only lead investigators have about Jane Doe's killer is that witnesses say he may have been driving a bright yellow colored compact car, something such as a 1982 Datson, the night he dumped her body.

Thousands of vehicle records in the state were examined as well as manufacture archives but nothing seemed to match the vehicle description.

If you have any information call the Vernon County Sheriff's department at 608-637-2123.

-- Tune in Wednesday night for the second part of this special two part series to how investigators are using today's technology launch Jane Doe's case into cyber space.


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