Grundy County

Key piece of decades-old murder mystery revealed as officials ID victim

“We always treated Vicky as if she was alive somewhere, but now no more."

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After nearly 50 years, part of a murder mystery has been solved, as officials revealed the identity of a woman found shot to death in Grundy County.

The Grundy County Coroner's Office identified the young woman, who was found in a farm field in Oct. 1976, as JoAnn Vicky Smith.

On Thursday, for the first time, her family got to meet those who worked tirelessly to reunite them with their sister

“I’m happy to have some closure … sad for the outcome,” said her sister Phyllis Harris.

“We always treated Vicky as if she was alive somewhere, but now no more,” said her brother Ronnie Smith.

On Oct. 2, 1976, a young, Black woman was found dumped in a ditch in the small village of Seneca. She had been shot once in the head, and early efforts to identify her were unsuccessful. After more than a month, the victim was buried in an unmarked grave, and it was several years ago when the coroner brought the case back to light, hoping new technologies would help bring closure to her unknown family.

“I felt an obligation and responsibility,” said John Callahan, Grundy County's coroner. “This is someone’s daughter - someone’s sister.”

The case was reopened in 2017. In 2018, her remains were exhumed, DNA was collected and a profile developed.

“A lot of resources to work with at this point that were never available in 1976,” said Brandon Johnson, deputy chief coroner.

Johnson took the lead in in the case. After no matches with the DNA, he enlisted the help of the DNA Project, which uses genetic genealogy to help solve long-lasting mysteries.

“They started working on an extensive family tree which was difficult,” he said.

The process was complicated by the fact that Vicky was adopted, but eventually a close match was identified, leading them to Cincinnati.

“I located what ended up being an adopted brother in South Carolina and called him out of the blue,” Johnson said.

It’s a call that Ronnie Smith will never forget.

He was a little boy when his older sister, who was 20 at the time, walked away from their home in Cincinnati one night – never to be seen alive again.

“It was just amazing after all these years – that all this came about,” he said.

A celebration of JoAnn Vicky Smith’s life will be held this weekend in Ohio, but many questions remain.

“If her identity can be pieced together, maybe they can piece together who did this. Perhaps that part can be pieced together also," Smith said.

The family has online fundraiser to help with burial expenses.

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