cold case

The Quest to Identify ‘Jane Seneca Doe' in Grundy County

Authorities in Grundy County are moving closer to identifying a murder victim from 44 years ago

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Her case has baffled authorities in Grundy County for over four decades.

In the fall of 1976, the body of a young African American woman was found on the shoulder of a rural highway near downstate Seneca. She was wearing a colorful red sweater, with a bottle of wine in the pocket. It was believed she may have been in her twenties, but she had no ID.

She had been shot once in the head. Authorities buried her with the name “Jane Seneca Doe,” and a young county official has made it is mission to find her true identity.

"I think everybody deserves closure, justice and absolutely deserves their name," deputy coroner Brandon Johnson told NBC 5. "To be buried somewhere without any of that is just very sad---that could take place and you could be forgotten about for almost 44 years."

Johnson had the woman's body exhumed in December of 2018 and obtained a full DNA profile. Armed with that information, he sent her case to the California-based DNA Doe project, which scours genealogical databases in an effort to match unknown victims from the past with living family members.

"We've solved cases based on third cousins, or even more distant," DNA Doe co-founder Colleen Fitzpatrick told NBC 5 last fall. "It's a whole network of relatives that you try to piece together, and find how they connect, and then, how they connect to your John and Jane Doe."

Now, the Grundy County case may be making headway. After months with no progress, Johnson said his DNA Doe partners notified him of a possible breakthrough. A genetic match had been made with an Alabama woman, which gave them clues to Jane Seneca Doe's family.

"They believe that Jane Seneca Doe's parents may have come from Selma, Alabama," Johnson said. "And at least one set of grandparents were from Selma."

The report further stated that one of their mystery woman's grandparents was likely named Calhoun, and a great-grandparent may have been named Harris. At least one branch of the family had moved to Ohio. And it is likely she may have had siblings who were unaware of her existence.

"It's sad that she could vanish without anybody missing her, or knowing about her," Johnson said. "But in this case it makes a little bit more sense now with a large family tree, and you know, everybody's family dynamics differ. There's a good chance that a lot of her family members never knew about her."

I think we're getting way closer than we ever were.

Deputy Coroner Brandon Johnson

Johnson said the woman whose DNA provided at least a partial match to his murder victim had purchased an DNA kit, and uploaded her profile to an online database. That's where the DNA Doe project made the match. And that woman is now assisting authorities in trying to learn anything she can about a long-lost relative who may have disappeared.

Johnson sent media in Selma information about his case, in hopes someone there might remember something. He also sent the details to more than a dozen Selma-area churches.

"Who better to reach than big congregations," he said. "An elderly person may recall someone who went missing in the community."

It started out as more than a needle-in-a-haystack search---more like a needle in the entire United States. But Johnson says he is hopeful that search is zeroing in on a possible answer.

"I have a good feeling now, based on tips that have been pouring in since Alabama broke the news out there, or shared our image and the release of last names," Johnson said. "It's a very strong possibility that her last name is in fact Calhoun."

There is, of course, one lingering detail. Even after “Jane Seneca Doe's” true identity is revealed, authorities face the remaining question of who killed her. Johnson agrees he would like to see justice in the case, but concedes that now, 44 years later, the killer might be deceased as well.

For now he is hoping to give her the dignity he feels she deserves.

"I would just be happy to give her name back," he said. "I'd like to see the person responsible to be charged with her murder, but at the very least, I'd like to give her name back."

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