EVERETT — She was 400 miles from home when she called her mother for the last time. She was still a girl, just barely, at 17½.
High school classmates knew her as Lisa before she ran away from Roseburg, Oregon, in the summer 1977. On the phone from Everett, she asked her mom to send money. Her parents pleaded with her to come home, and Lisa said she’d think about it. They sent a check to a branch of Seafirst Bank. Lisa never picked it up.
For the next 43 years, her identity was lost, obliterated by a killer who told police he didn’t bother to get her name.
Her identity evaded police, and evaded police, and evaded police. Twice as long as she was alive, Snohomish County investigators knew her as Jane Doe, or Precious Jane Doe, as detective Jim Scharf began calling her when he took on the case in 2008.
Finally, this month, investigators working with a pro bono team of 16 genealogists unearthed her name — Lisa Roberts — as well as basic facts about her life. It’s one of the first cold cases in the world solved with DNA extracted from hair, and it’s the oldest case of unidentified remains solved with forensic genealogy in Snohomish County.
Her name was released Thursday by the sheriff’s office.
For decades, police knew only the circumstances of her death.
David Marvin Roth, then 20, picked up a tall, tan, pretty hitchhiker on Aug. 9, 1977. She refused his advances. Then he offered her a strange gift, a peacock feather, as an apparent distraction.
Blackberry pickers discovered the young woman’s body on Aug. 14, 1977, in brambles off Emander Road, which is now a much busier street renamed Fourth Avenue W. She had been strangled, shot many times in the head and left to decompose for days in the summer heat. She carried no purse, no driver’s license and few clues to her past.
“This girl,” Scharf said, “she had to be loved by somebody, and here she was getting picked up by someone who just wanted to have sex. … She did the right thing, and it got her killed. So I thought, ‘This girl is precious to me, she’s got to be precious to somebody else.’”
Investigators exhumed her remains from Cypress Lawn cemetery in Everett in 2008. A University of North Texas lab extracted a partial genetic profile from a femur for a national database called CODIS. (No matches.) In the past three years, labs have tried and failed four times to recover a clean sample from other bones for whole genome sequencing, a complete snapshot of a person’s genetic makeup.
Ultimately, the DNA that unveiled her identity came from strands of hair in a property room at the sheriff’s office, never buried, stored alongside clothes, cigarettes and coins that were considered evidence. It took over two years for a California paleontologist to acquire a useful genetic profile from the hair, following faltering attempts of his own to refine an algorithm, so it could be shared on the public ancestry sites GEDmatch and FamilyTreeDNA.
Through the power of those databases and old-fashioned digging through records, genealogists had already rebuilt pieces of Precious Jane Doe’s family tree, tracking down potential distant cousins and distant grandparents, but never coming closer than a third cousin.
Years of research were led by renowned genealogist Barbara Rae-Venter, whose work on the Golden State Killer case ushered in a new era of cold-case forensics. Two weeks ago, when the new genetic profile was uploaded online, they quickly pinpointed Precious Jane Doe’s biological family in Oregon.
“Once we had that, it connected right in with the trees that we had,” Rae-Venter said. “Three trees were intersecting. It’s basically X marks the spot.”
The detective eventually got in touch with a man he believed was the girl’s biological older half-brother — adopted by another family — and learned he had already shared his DNA on Ancestry.com. A genetic comparison that same night suggested Precious Jane Doe was his long lost half-sister, Elizabeth Elder.
“It was kind of hard to believe,” said Scharf, a Snohomish County cold case detective who has also pioneered the new field of forensic genealogy from the law enforcement side. “I always have that feeling, it’s like, ‘This is like magic, how do you come up with this information?’ And it’s always correct. It’s the best tool in the world. If you can get DNA on a case, it’s always solvable now.”
It took another week to confirm her surname, which was changed at adoption. For most of her life, she had been Elizabeth Ann Roberts.
That’s the name beside her black-and-white photo in the Roseburg High yearbook in 1976, when the sophomore had a kind of bowl cut, with her bangs in a straight line centimeters above the eyebrows. If you study the picture long enough, you may pick up on small things you missed at first, like how Lisa is squinting ever so slightly with her right eye, as if something was a bit off in the moment the camera flashed and preserved her portrait for the record.
She spoke in a monotone, no accent, no sign of higher education. She smoked cigarettes with her right hand. She looked to be in her 30s, because she had wrinkles around her eyes. That’s how David Roth remembered the person he killed.
He returned to Everett after serving his time in prison. Cold case investigators knocked on his door in 2008 to ask if he would help to uncover the girl’s identity. He agreed to try.
“You pick up a stranger, a hitchhiker, she’s not going to tell you her name. You’re not trying to get personal,” Roth told The Daily Herald back then. “She didn’t ask me my name.”
For decades, Precious Jane Doe’s biography could fit on an index card. She wore a pastel tank top with blue, green and pink stripes. In the pockets of her denim cutoffs, she had 17 cents, an open pack of Marlboros and an empty plastic bag. She wore a blue-and-white pair of Mr. Sneekers, boys size 7. A Timex watch with a yellow face and a leather band was fastened to her left wrist. She stood 5-foot-10 and weighed around 155 pounds, with light brown hair.
She was walking south on the Bothell-Everett Highway, on the east side of Silver Lake, thumbing for a ride. Roth picked her up in a Chevy Nova. He was not quite 21, but his 6-foot-5 frame and a receding hairline evidently helped him buy beer at a grocery store. He drove with her to a hidden spot near Mariner High School. He wanted to have sex. She turned him down, saying she wanted to go home.
He offered her the peacock feather, then took out his rage on her. He choked her with a bungee cord and dragged her into the bushes. He emptied the clip of his .22-caliber rifle into her head.
Days later, police were called about a man waving a rifle in a park outside Gold Bar. On the way to the scene, an officer stopped a car weaving on U.S. 2. The Chevy Nova smelled like pot. Inside were bags of cannabis, roach clips, a loaded .22-caliber rifle and a bundle of feathers. Roth was arrested. By the time police were called about the body, he had been released from jail.
Later, Roth confided in a friend that he killed a hitchhiker. The friend called police. After building a case against him, officers arrested Roth early on Jan. 18, 1979, at a Port Orchard apartment.
A jury convicted him of first-degree murder on Nov. 9, 1979.
In the meantime, the young woman’s hands were removed and sent to the FBI headquarters for fingerprints. No matches.
Anybody who might have made a connection between Elizabeth Ann Roberts and the nameless body would have had good reasons to dismiss the thought, based on official statements released by the sheriff’s office. Early news articles reported she was a grown adult, anywhere from her early 20s to late 30s.
Her skull was never buried, and forensic dentist Dr. Gary Bell peered into her mouth in 1988. He found she’d had work done on her front teeth, and one of her wisdom teeth had roots that were still developing. He estimated she was 17 to 24 years old. No dental records ever came back as an apparent match for a missing person.
In 1992, a local television report on “Evening Magazine” followed along with Snohomish County homicide detective John Hinds as he took a class in clay reconstructions, using the skull of the Jane Doe to make his cast. It was a first attempt, and in retrospect that’s painfully clear, as the resulting replica bore little resemblance to the girl in the yearbook. Police dressed up the model in a scarf, a frizzy wig and a shimmering long-sleeve shirt. After the show aired, a tipster called wondering if it might be a relative in her 50s.
Hinds rebuilt her face again as a forensic artist — still using the skull, but on paper, in two dimensions — around the time Scharf took on the case in 2008. A second artist, former police officer Natalie Murry, gave it another shot with digital tools in 2016. The drawings captured traits of the real Lisa Roberts: proportions of her chin and mouth, a certain crookedness near the tip of her nose, and even the spaghetti straps of her striped tanktop.
Forensic anthropologist Dr. Kathy Taylor examined the exhumed remains in 2008 and revised previous estimates about the young woman’s age. She believed she was 15 to 21 years old. If she had to narrow it down, she’d guess 16 to 19.
A year before the killing, a young security guard named Jim Scharf moved from Illinois to Snohomish County. He took a job at Everett General Hospital. He remembers stopping a couple times at Silver Lake to feed the ducks, near the spot where Roth was going to go for a swim that day, but instead crossed paths with Precious Jane Doe.
“I could’ve been down there and seen her hitchhiking that day,” Scharf said.
That stuck with him. Later the nickname he gave her, Precious, stuck with strangers, who kept the case in public view for years.
A Florida woman, Kimberly Bruklis, built a website dedicated to the 1977 Doe, with forensic drawings, case numbers, tip lines and a list of women ruled out by investigators as possible matches.
Over time Scharf crossed off at least 65 names. Some appeared to be strong possibilities at first. Cherry Greenman, for example, had vanished at age 20 in September 1976 while hitchhiking along U.S. 2 in central Washington. She’s still missing.
Bruklis posted a listing for Precious Jane Doe on eBay, with the idea that the oddity might catch some eyeballs and bring in tips. But it was taken down by eBay when it did get attention.
Janice Smolinski, the mother of missing Connecticut man Billy Smolinski, sewed a “Quilt of Hope” for the University of North Texas, a national hub for investigations into missing people and unidentified bodies. On one patch was a sketch of Precious Jane Doe, alongside an inventory of clues.
Even the killer, Roth, wanted to restore her identity.
“As long as she’s nameless, there is no one for him to apologize to,” wrote Herald reporter Diana Hefley, when she interviewed him about a decade ago.
“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.”
Roth never got a chance to say sorry. He died of cancer exactly 38 years after the killing, on Aug. 9, 2015. The mystery outlived him.
She was born Nov. 3, 1959, to parents who would soon divorce in Hood River, Oregon. She was adopted as a toddler by non-blood relatives, the Roberts. Around the time she turned 6, they moved across the state to Roseburg.
Her biological father, Stanley Elder, his new wife and three of Lisa’s biological brothers, of Hood River, died when their car plunged into the Columbia River in 1970.
As a teen, Lisa’s arms and legs grew lanky. She towered over her adoptive family in photos.
“I looked up to Lisa as my big sister, who would spend time with me and play with me downstairs,” her sibling, Tonya, said in a statement released by the sheriff’s office Thursday. “We had a really good bond because we were both adopted.”
Her father told the detective that Lisa’s front teeth got chipped in band class, when another student hit her flute while she was playing. About a week before she went missing, her parents confronted her about a bag of marijuana found on the lawn.
Lisa was reported missing from Roseburg on July 25, 1977. She was supposed to come home from hanging out with friends by 11 p.m. She didn’t leave a note to say where she was going or why she left. According to her father’s report to police, it didn’t appear she had taken much with her, if anything, Scharf said. The missing person report was entered into NCIC, a national database kept by the FBI. But the same day, her name was removed without explanation. All these years, detectives had suspected they were chasing something that wasn’t there.
Around the time he reopened the case, Scharf asked the FBI for a list of all missing people who could be Precious Jane Doe — young women who were white, born from 1955 to 1962, and within 3 inches of 5-foot-10 — whose cases were removed from a federal database in the latter half of the 1970s. He received a document with 39,447 names.
It didn’t say who had been found, or why their files were removed.
“It’s an impossible list to search,” Scharf said at the time.
As it turned out, Elizabeth Ann Roberts was on that list. But there was no way to sift through the noise.
The detective only learned this month that Lisa Roberts had placed that phone call from Everett, about two weeks after she left her hometown. Had the report stayed active, Lisa might have been identified in a matter of days, rather than generations.
She died four months shy of her 18th birthday. A log entry with the Roseburg Police Department noted the date she would become a legal adult, therefore no longer considered a runaway in the eyes of the law, and removed from the database forever. Glaring flaws in the system have since been patched over by federal law, such as the Missing Children’s Assistance Act, which created the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children in 1984.
“There was no accountability for how many (runaways) were still missing,” Scharf said. “They just assumed they were all still alive and doing their own thing.”
At the time of her death, Lisa Roberts had been missing 16 days.
In most homicides with an unidentified victim, finding the name of the deceased is the most critical step in tracking down the killer. But in this case, justice had been doled out long ago. The aim was simply to bring closure for a family. Scharf first mentioned Precious Jane Doe to Rae-Venter in early 2017. It was more than a year later when her research revealed the name of the suspected Golden State Killer. Her team has solved dozens of challenging cold cases since then, with the same kind of DNA sleuthing often used in the civilian world to discover long-lost relatives.
Meanwhile, Scharf had worked with another genealogist, CeCe Moore, to crack the 1987 double homicide of a Canadian couple in Western Washington. The suspect, William Talbott II, became the first man convicted by a jury with the help of forensic genealogy.
In Precious Jane Doe’s case, Snohomish County death investigator Jane Jorgensen sent packages of bones to labs starting in summer 2017 — the cranium, teeth, a right femur, more teeth — with a goal of extracting and uploading the DNA profile to ancestry sites.
Renewed hope was followed by a streak of letdowns. In late 2019, several apparent hits on GEDmatch turned out to be a research scientist’s test kits, not actual people.
In the past, hair has been basically useless as a source for nuclear DNA without roots where there might be tissue to harvest. Dr. Ed Green, a paleogenomics researcher at U.C. Santa Cruz, has since developed a technique to extract a complete DNA profile from hair.
Rae-Venter first heard of him when she stumbled across a newspaper article about how Green used hairs to find relatives of a dead toddler, who was preserved in a mysterious casket under a San Francisco home for over a century.
Green had worked with cutting-edge technology to lift DNA from ancient sources, like human ancestors. In the project he’s best known for, his team sequenced the Neanderthal genome using highly degraded DNA from bones roughly 40,000 years old.
Green helped police on cases through Rae-Venter’s connections, quietly, until his role in cracking a notorious quadruple murder in New Hampshire was reported last year by The New York Times.
By the time Green shared his final genetic profile of Precious Jane Doe, the team of genealogists spent “certainly hundreds, possibly thousands of hours” in search of her ancestry, Rae-Venter said.
They came across one family tree, “an oddball,” on a strange website where a distant relative listed a girl by the name of Elizabeth Marie Elder, with three brothers by the same parents.
“We’d actually long suspected this person was probably adopted,” Rae-Venter said. “That’s why it was so difficult to find her. And of course, the person we identified, it’s the person’s birth name. We had no idea what the adopted name would be.”
Scharf called a woman who turned out to be Lisa’s half-sister from another father on June 9. The detective explained he was searching for someone in her biological family who had been adopted out.
“Is her name Elizabeth?” the sister replied.
She knew another sibling by that name was out there.
“They were always hoping someday they’d get to meet her,” Scharf said.
Divorce papers revealed Elizabeth Elder’s date of birth. Adoption records confirmed her new name.
It was not a happy or easy thing for her family to learn. They plan to bury her in the same Hood River cemetery where both biological and adopted family members have been laid to rest.
“We accomplished our goal of giving this girl her name back,” Scharf said. “She isn’t going to be a forever unknown person.”
Scharf believes this same technology will continue to crack cases that, for years, were written off as unsolvable. In the meantime, anybody who reported a missing loved one in the past should double-check with their local police department, he said, to ensure the case was not erased or lost, like it was for Precious Jane Doe.
“There’s so much bad in the world,” Scharf said. “This girl here, she was maybe going out and drinking, like kids do, with this guy. But she at least had the morals to not let him just take advantage of her. And I thought it was really sad that she was trying to be a good girl, and it got her killed. I’d be proud of her if she was my daughter.”
After all this time, a new mystery has emerged in the case. That day Lisa Roberts called home, her parents learned she’d been staying with a woman in Everett. Police want to find that woman, too, because she may be able to fill in gaps in Lisa’s story. If she read in the newspaper back in the day that it was a woman in her 20s or 30s who was killed nearby, she might have never called police, figuring that could not have been Lisa.
Tips can be directed to the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office at 425-388-3845.
Caleb Hutton: 425-339-3454; firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @snocaleb.