Featuring The Doe Network
By Ruben Rosario
Pioneer Press Columnist
She was raped, strangled with a nylon cord and discarded like garbage in a drainage ditch off Interstate 90 near Blue Earth. The killer's identity is long known. He was an unlikely suspect, an on-duty Minnesota State Patrol trooper who lured the apparent hitchhiker one late spring day in 1980 and confessed to the crime nine years later.
Yet, two decades later, the murder victim buried in Blue Earth's Riverside Cemetery still remains a "Jane Doe", one of roughly 13 unidentified people who have died in Minnesota in recent decades. But an online community of mostly civilian sleuths, including an unlikely partnership between a Minnesota mom-to-be and a retired police chief are trying to help authorities and relatives find a name and a sense of finality for this legion of the anonymous dead.
The Doe Network, launched five years ago by a handful of Internet surfers interested in unsolved mysteries, has grown into what some say is a valuable clearinghouse of information on thousands of unidentified bodies and missing persons reports. There are now hundreds of members, from housewives and case investigators to retirees, sifting through the two massive data files in search of potential matches. They are aided by thousands of other Web site visitors stretching coast to coast, and from Europe to Australia."Our motto and our mission is that everybody deserves a name,'' says Todd Matthews, a Tennessee-based company quality-control manager who helped found the site.
The network is credited with cracking more than a dozen "cold" cases that had stymied law enforcement and relatives of the deceased or missing for years.One of the more recent successes involved a middle-aged paralegal from Pennsylvania who, in her spare time, was able to match details of a Wayne, N.J., man missing since 1996 to a skull and jaw found by Vermont police authorities two years later in a wooded area. The common thread was the detail in both reports that the victim was handicapped. "This is the best site of its kind around," says Don Mickelson, a former police chief who retired in 1996 after 33 years with the St. James, Minn., police department.
Mickelson knew Jane Doe's killer, Robert Leroy Nelson, a trooper assigned to the Mankato State Patrol district. "He wasn't well liked, and he shouldn't have been in law enforcement,'' Mickelson said in his most diplomatic, Minnesota Nice assessment of the cold-blooded killer. Nelson, currently serving a life sentence in Texas in connection with brutal sexual assaults on other victims and his own children, admitted to the murder and under hypnosis provided authorities with some details about the victim, including tossing her black purse into a nearby grain storage facility. The purse was never found. Mickelson assumed the victim's identity had been learned until he read a profile in a local paper this summer about the efforts of Deborah Anderson, a 34-year-old computer information systems manager at Mankato State University.Anderson, of Blue Earth, Minn., knows Gerald Kabe, a retired Faribault County deputy sheriff who was assigned the Jane Doe case during the first year of her discovery. Last summer, Kabe informed Anderson of the case that had haunted him for years. "I can't really tell you why I got so deep into this, except that I kept thinking that this is somebody's sister, daughter or perhaps a mother whose relatives deserve to know what happened to her," says Anderson, who is seven months pregnant with her first child.
In her inquiries, Anderson learned that local law enforcement, some born after the case, did not know about it and that the case was not listed with any known national organization involved with missing persons or Minnesota's own online clearinghouse site on missing persons. She contacted the Doe Network and was able to post what she knew about the case. Anderson, who has obtained copies of Jane Doe's skull and dental records, and Mickelson have poured through more than 2,000 files maintained by the online site. They have the narrowed the list of potential matches to five. The strongest link appears to be a missing-person case that actually was investigated shortly after the murder. Kabe says he was convinced Jane Doe was actually a missing New York City woman, after dentists compared dental records of the two women and thought they matched. But the lead was all but dropped when a pathologist from Ramsey County examined the records and concluded that they probably were not the same person.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Washington, D.C., which deals exclusively with minors, has taken an interest in the Minnesota case. The organization has told Anderson it is willing to foot the estimated $3,000 to $5,000 fee to create a clay facial reconstruction of Jane Doe's face if the body is exhumed. The only image of the dead woman is a sketch recently drawn by a volunteer police artist with the online site's Project EDAN (Everyone Deserves a Name). Mickelson and Anderson are willing to pay for the exhumation and DNA tests, but they say they are waiting for local authorities to approve the request and obtain a court order. Faribault County Attorney Brian Roverud said he is not opposed to an exhumation, but needs an approval from County Sheriff Scott Campbell before he approaches a county judge for a court order."I would guess that the sheriff would have to be convinced that it would be worthwhile or have a likelihood of success,'' Roverud said. Anderson said Campbell has not returned her calls in recent weeks about the request. "I live in a small town, and I don't want to burn any bridges, but I have received far more cooperation from national authorities and cops in New York and other states," Anderson said. Mickelson and Kabe expressed similar frustrations. Campbell did not return a phone call for comment. "We have received enormous help from law enforcement in several jurisdictions, but then there are some officers who don't like civilians poking their noses or treading into their turf," said Dana Gonzalez, a New Jersey resident and the online site's assistant media director. "It's mostly an ego thing with some cops." Mickelson doesn't understand why there would be any opposition to an exhumation. "There is a sister, a brother, a parent or perhaps a child out there that wants to know what happened to her or where her body is," Mickelson said. "That's good enough for me." This artist's sketch is the only image of a hitchhiker found dead near Blue Earth, Minn., 23 years ago. Though the killer's identity is known, the victim's is not.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
To learn more about the Doe Network and other related sites, go to: www.doenetwork.org. To learn more about the case of the Blue Earth Jane Doe, go to http://mavweb.mnsu.edu/bittid/welcome.htm.