Long after body was found, detectives search for ‘Jane Doe’

He calls her the victim. The female. The person he killed.

David Roth spent more than half his life locked in a concrete cell for the murder of a woman he left without a name.

She was a hitchhiker he picked up on a hot August day in 1977 near Silver Lake in Everett. She refused to have sex with him. He wrapped a cord around her neck, strangled her, emptied a rifle into her head, took her life.

He erased her.

Homicide detectives long ago found her body, yet still search for the young woman they call their “precious Jane Doe.”

Her identity apparently doesn’t exist in the world of police databases and computer files. Jane Doe is among thousands of the nation’s unnamed dead.

The search has stretched across four decades, bumping up against a wall of seeming impossibility. Detectives tried to capture her resemblance in pencil sketches. They sent her hands to forensic experts to collect her fingerprints. They’ve scoured lists of missing women. They dug up her remains to extract a genetic sample.

“This girl has been a Jane Doe longer than who she was,” Snohomish County sheriff’s detective Jim Scharf said.

In the hour she spent with Roth, he stole her life, her identity and so far, the chance to be claimed. He took her story.

“She needs to have her name back again,” Scharf said, “and the family will have some answers.”

Scharf and sheriff’s detective David Heitzman last year intensified the search for Jane Doe’s identity. The hunt has spanned the country and into Canada. The trail also brought them back to Roth.

Today he is a free man, released from prison in 2005. He is cobbling together a life outside prison walls, in a world that doesn’t much resemble the one that left him behind.

Roth, 51, agreed to help the detectives with their search. He allowed them to dig around in memories he’d rather forget.

For the detectives, it’s the first time a convicted killer has helped them without anything to gain for his cooperation. Roth, who spent nearly three decades following orders from uniformed men with guns, says he is trying to do the right thing.

“I’m here to help the detectives solve a mystery,” he said.

It was the summer of 1977, a few days before Elvis Presley was found dead in his Graceland mansion. The 1950s science fiction classics “War of the Worlds” and “When Worlds Collide” were billed as a double feature at the Puget Park Drive-In Theater. Kids flocked to Silver Lake to soak up the last warm days of summer vacation.

She was walking south along the Bothell-Everett Highway on the east side of the lake. The beach was a good place to find someone willing to share a joint or a few beers.

Roth, then 20, drove by in his 1963 Chevy Nova. He noticed the tall girl with brown hair and a summer tan. She was wearing short, cutoff blue jeans and a striped tank top. She got into his car and Roth headed toward the Midland Grocery on Fourth Avenue. He picked up a six-pack of beer and drove to a secluded area near Mariner High School.

She smoked a cigarette, drank some beer. Roth wanted to have sex with her. She turned him down. Roth handed her a gift: a long, brilliant peacock feather.

She still wanted to go home.

Rage took over. Roth stretched a bungee cord around her neck, dragged her into the woods and fired his .22-caliber rifle into her head until the clip was empty, then picked up the casings.

Still raging, Roth later shot up his Nova after driving away from what he’d done.

More than 30 years later, sitting in a conference room in the sheriff’s office, flanked by detectives, Roth doesn’t want to talk about the killing. His deep voice is thick with irritation as he makes clear he’s not interested in recounting the details. How he killed the victim, the female, the person, he says, doesn’t have anything to do with finding her name.

What he did is there in court papers, old newspaper clippings and a thick, glossy green police file labeled Doe, J. 1977.

Berry pickers found her on Aug. 14, 1977. A few days exposed to the hot August sun and the destruction of her face made it nearly impossible to tell what she looked like before taking a ride with Roth.

Hints about her life are in the autopsy report. In the pockets of her shorts were 17 cents, a partial pack of Marlboros and an empty plastic bag. She wore blue-and-white size 7 boys tennis shoes, Mr. Sneekers brand. Her Timex watch was on her left wrist, the leather band fastened at the second-to-last notch.

The seven lead slugs dug out of her head belonged to someone else.

Sheriff’s detectives caught some early breaks: They wound up with the murder weapon and the killer’s car even before learning there was a dead woman lying in a field among blackberry brambles.

A day before she was found, a man was seen waving a rifle in a park outside Gold Bar. A police officer heading to the scene stopped a car he saw weaving along U.S. 2. Roth was behind the wheel.

The cop smelled pot and saw two roach clips in the Nova’s ashtray. A search turned up three baggies of dope and a loaded .22-caliber rifle. Roth went to jail, his car impounded. He was released the same day Jane Doe’s body was laid out on the coroner’s table.

Over the next few days, Roth gave up his secret piece by piece, confessing to a friend that he’d killed a hitchhiker. The man called a Seattle police officer, Roy Reed, who contacted sheriff’s detective Kenneth Sedy. Detectives searched Roth’s Nova. They found peacock feathers, shell casings and bungee cords. They already had the .22-caliber Marlin rifle with a clip and 59 rounds of ammunition.

It took a long time, but ballistic tests eventually showed that the slugs taken from Jane Doe’s head matched those shot from Roth’s gun.

Police came for Roth at 2 a.m. Jan. 18, 1979, at an apartment in Port Orchard. They arrested him for skipping out on the marijuana charge. On the ferry ride back, sheriff’s detectives questioned Roth about the killing. He confessed.

A jury on Nov. 9, 1979, convicted Roth of first-degree murder. He was sentenced to life behind bars.

His victim was in an unmarked grave at Cypress Lawn Memorial Park. Sunrise section, plot No. 2.

‘They still don’t know who the victim was.”

That was the second paragraph of a newspaper story printed three weeks after the girl was found. Jane Doe’s truth hasn’t changed. Her life and the path she was on when she ran into Roth are voids in the green police file.

Detectives still don’t know if she was thrown away long before Roth dumped her in a field. They don’t know if she was running away from heavy fists or hell-bent on making her own way on the streets. They don’t know why she got in the car with a stranger.

They hold on to the belief that someone is looking for her.

“I want to help the family — to return her, to give her a proper burial,” Scharf said.

From the beginning, the search for Jane Doe’s identity has been like assembling a jigsaw puzzle without a picture on the box to guide the way.

A pathologist, soon after her body was found, removed the woman’s hands and sent them to the FBI lab in Virginia, where forensic experts collected her fingerprints. The prints have never matched any on file in law enforcement databases.

Two weeks into the investigation, detectives released a sketch of the victim to newspapers. The crude, cartoonish drawing was pieced together from a catalogue of lips and noses and other facial features provided in an identity kit.

A forensic dentist in 1988 noted that two of the victim’s front teeth had extensive dental restoration, the likely result of an accident. A search for matching dental records led nowhere.

In 1992 sheriff’s detective John Hinds, a forensic artist, used more advanced techniques to reconstruct the girl’s face. He took a plaster casting from her skull and painstakingly molded in clay the contours of muscle and tendons. He gave Jane Doe a face, and photographs of his reconstruction were circulated, to no avail.

Scharf cracked open the file last year after receiving a call from Missy DesLonde, a director with the Doe Network. Information about thousands of missing people swirls around in cyberspace. The Web-based group cross-references missing persons cases against unclaimed bodies. If there are enough similarities, the volunteer cybersleuths contact police.

Experts estimate about 110,000 people are considered missing in the U.S. The unidentified remains of about 60,000 people are buried in unmarked graves or stored in boxes in medical examiner offices across the country. Physical descriptions for only about 15 percent of those remains have been entered into the FBI’s National Crime Information Center.

“All these unidentified people deserve a name,” DesLonde said. “Jane Doe was not only murdered, but her existence was wiped off the face of the earth.”

Scharf knew advances in technology might make it possible to identify Jane Doe through DNA. He spoke with forensic experts, including anthropologist Dr. Kathy Taylor and George Adams, program coordinator with the Center for Human Identification at the University of North Texas.

The center, funded by the National Institute of Justice, employs leading forensic scientists to identify and analyze genetic samples from unidentified remains. They also collect samples submitted by the relatives of missing persons so their DNA can be tested against that of unclaimed victims.

Taylor and Adams agreed that the detectives should exhume Jane Doe’s remains. Scientists might be able to extract a DNA sample from a bone to compare against those in the nation’s Combined DNA Index System. They hoped a relative’s DNA might be on file. Taylor also agreed to examine the remains for any clues that were overlooked.

Scharf and Heitzman got a court order last spring to unearth the woman’s remains. Taylor’s examination led her to believe that Jane Doe was between 15 and 21 years old. Up until then, detectives believed she was older.

Meanwhile, Scharf headed deeper into the maze of the missing and unnamed dead. He learned how easy it would have been for Jane Doe to slip through the cracks in the 1970s, when missing persons databases were in their infancy. They still have lots of holes.

The FBI’s database now collects all missing persons reports. Every year the records are audited and law enforcement agencies around the country are asked to update their missing persons files, accounting for whether a person has been found. If police fail to respond, the missing person’s file may be purged from the system.

“So many things can go wrong,” Adams said.

Scharf found three possible matches in the FBI database. Jane Doe’s DNA didn’t match any of them. So far, Scharf has ruled out 56 missing persons. He’s still working on four possible matches, including one woman missing from Canada.

He also requested officials at the FBI’s National Crime Information Center run an offline search capturing data of all the missing women matching Jane Doe’s physical traits, and whose cases were removed from the database between 1975 and 1980.

Scharf got back a list: 11,086 pages, 39,447 missing women. The list doesn’t tell him if any were found or why their files were removed.

“It’s an impossible list to search,” Scharf said.

The detectives also turned to Roth — the last person to see Jane Doe alive. They wanted his help with a new sketch that Hinds, now retired, planned to prepare of the girl. Roth agreed to let detectives grill him again, this time in search of anything that may lead to his victim’s name.

“David served his time. He didn’t have to help,” Scharf said. “I think he wants her to be identified.”

Roth is tall and solid. His speech is slow, cautious and stuffed with phrases picked up in prison therapy sessions and 12-step programs. In a recent interview he rolled his eyes in frustration as he explained he’s not interested in headlines or talking about his family, including his older brother. Randy Roth was convicted in 1992 of murdering his wife.

David Roth doesn’t want the attention.

“The girl’s story is what we’re after,” he said. “I see the detectives going out of their way to find her identity. When these guys asked, I told them I’d do whatever I could. I can no longer help her, but I can help those who are looking for her. Some things we have to do.”

Roth compared his cooperation now to obeying the speed limit even if there aren’t any cops around. “You do things you know to be right because you’re trying to do right,” he said.

He admits spending years locked behind bars without thinking about what was right. He was still getting high and drunk more than a decade into his sentence, he said.

“I was stuck on stupid,” he said. It’s a phrase he often repeats.

But he wanted out of prison. A counselor told him he needed to face what he did. The parole board wanted to be assured Roth wouldn’t kill again.

“I started putting myself in the shoes of the parole board. If it was somebody like me and I wasn’t convinced they were changed, I wouldn’t let them go. I have hurt someone the worst way you can hurt someone,” Roth said.

He signed up for classes: victim empathy, anger management, avoiding negative peer pressure, consequences and actions.

He memorized self-help mantras and the words of prison counselors. They tumble around in his explanations of how he’s changed and why people should believe this atonement.

Roth was on track to be released in the late 1990s. That was delayed when, two decades after he confessed to the murder, his story changed. He told a psychiatrist he’d repressed the true reason he strangled her. She threatened to have her two boyfriends hunt him down, he said.

He repeated the story in a letter he wrote in 1999 to a Snohomish County judge, asking for a release date.

“Before the remembrance of the pertinent detail I had been telling the board and also when I confessed that I thought I killed her because she had rejected my advances toward her,” he wrote. “I had always had a deep feeling that that was not the real reason.”

Instead of releasing him, the parole board thought he needed more time behind bars. He finally got out in May 2005 and hasn’t had any problems with the law.

Last year detectives showed Roth a new sketch of Jane Doe. He told them he was surprised people were still searching. Before they released the sketch to the media, Roth helped them with a few details. There was a little change with her hairstyle, and he told them he didn’t think the nose was quite right.

“I’ve been trying to remember what she looked like,” he explained. “It’s not something I try to forget. I wish I could. As the years go by, the details fog up.”

During a November meeting, Chuck Wright, a Mill Creek mental health professional and a volunteer with the sheriff’s cold case team, asked Roth if he’d ever considered hypnosis. Maybe the memories are tucked away where he can’t get to them? Maybe with help they can be unlocked?

Roth wasn’t prepared for the question. Uncertain how to answer, he looked to the detectives seated across from him.

He doesn’t think she told him her name. “You pick up a stranger, a hitchhiker, she’s not going to tell you her name. You’re not trying to get personal,” Roth said. “She didn’t ask me my name.”

He offered detectives these details: She didn’t have an accent. She spoke in a monotone. She didn’t appear to be educated. He thought she was in her 30s because there were wrinkles around her eyes. He thinks she was right-handed because she held her cigarette in that hand.

The detectives nodded at Roth. It’s a delicate dance, asking a man to put himself back in the moment of murder.

Just as difficult is taking Roth to a moment he’s escaped in the 32 years since he strangled a hitchhiker. He forfeited his freedom, his youth discarded behind prison walls.

Yet Roth hasn’t faced those who really knew, or loved, or miss that girl, Doe, J. 1977.

“I’ve always wondered how to alleviate someone’s sorrow. I don’t know what you can actually say to someone who you’ve killed their loved one,” Roth said. “I think I would try to convince them I’m no longer the person that did that and I’ve learned to value life.”

As long as she’s nameless, there is no one for him to apologize to.

There’s no looking into someone’s eyes and hearing grief when they say her name.

He has escaped the unshakable moment, when she becomes real, when she becomes someone’s daughter or sister or girlfriend again. When her story finally is taken back from him.

That is the moment when the sum of her life will become more than the weight of his sins.

Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463, hefley@heraldnet.com.

Online resources

In an attempt to find Jane Doe´s identity, a video about the case was posted on YouTube (above).

The video was made by Missy DesLonde, a volunteer with the Doe Network. The Web-based agency tries to match missing persons cases with unidentified remains. DesLonde contacted Snohomish County sheriff´s detectives last year to ask about a missing girl, who was a possible match for Jane Doe. Police ruled her out.

The search for Jane Doe’s identity is also detailed on various Web sites, including this one: http://snohomishcountyjanedoe.homestead.com.

A MySpace page dedicated to the case is at http://www.myspace.com/1977snohomishjanedoecase.

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