MANATEE — The woman’s nude body was found washed ashore off Tidy Island on April 9, 1983; her identity and how she died were a mystery.
Almost 26 years later, with a renewed effort to solve the case, another mystery surrounds the woman’s death: the location of her body.
Investigators spent Thursday and Friday at the New Memphis Cemetery, Manatee County’s burial ground for the indigent deceased, searching for Plot 244.
After excavating several areas with a mechanical backhoe and the back-breaking labor of a work crew from the county jail, investigators from the medical examiner’s office and the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office decided to stop digging until they have a better idea where the body may have been buried.
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“We were unsuccessful in locating the body of Jane Doe,” said David Winterhalter, director of investigation for the medical examiner. “We didn’t want to disturb any more grave sites than necessary.”
Det. Bud Johnson, of the sheriff’s office’s criminal investigation division, was hoping to obtain bone fragments in order to extract DNA samples and register them with the FBI.
“Technology has grown by leaps and bounds,” Johnson said. “We have techniques now we didn’t dream of even four or five years ago.”
They don’t have any new leads, but the Tidy Island incident came up during a review of unsolved cases. According to the Herald archives, construction workers noticed the woman’s body floating face down about 30 yards offshore in Sarasota Bay.
By the time deputies arrived, the body of the woman, thought to be in her teens or early 20s, had floated to shore.
An autopsy determined the woman had been dead from two to seven days, and that she may have drowned.
Even though there was a red gash on her head, the medical examiner believed the death was accidental. Nonetheless, until there is a positive identification, Johnson, who has been with the sheriff’s office since 1971, said the case will be treated as suspicious.
When they can find the skeleton, it will be sent to the University of Florida Pound Laboratory in Gainesville, where a forensic anthropologist will do tests and extract DNA samples.
The re-examination of the remains may provide new clues on how the woman died, and the DNA will be sent to several registries, including the Florida Unidentified Decedents Database, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System and the FBI CODIX.
“If we can get her DNA in that database,” Winterhalter said, “then maybe we can identify her.”
The body hasn’t been found because of poor record-keeping methods in the early 1980s, officials contend.
The grave sites were not marked until 1986, said Gladys Rumph, of the county Community Services Department, which overseas the cemetery. Winterhalter is working off a chart that indicated Jane Doe was buried four sites from the end of a row, but there were no markers showing where the first site was located.
The work crews dug several feet down in one area and a long probe was poked into the ground to see if it struck any type of burial container.
Because burial vaults were not used back then, the simple coffins used for the indigent deceased are deteriorated.
Bones were found in one grave site Friday, and Deputy Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Wilson A. Broussard Jr. examined them but determined they were not those of Jane Doe. The remains were returned to the grave site and reburied.
Johnson said the exhumation process will be put on hold until they can better identify the location of the grave.
“We need to do more research of the records,” he said, “and possibly use ground-penetrating radar.”