Central Valley

UC Merced professor on team trying to identify victim of 37-year-old murder

PATTERSON -- She, whoever she might be, had rested there in peace since her violent death nearly 37 years ago.

Her marker at Patterson District Cemetery read simply: "Jane Doe."

Someone had lined her cheap plywood coffin with newspapers, one of which contained an advertisement for orchids at 50 cents apiece.

"It's hard to believe nobody missed her," said Ken Hedrick, a homicide detective with the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department. "I can't help but think there could be a mom out there somewhere setting a place at the dinner table every night, hoping this girl shows up."

Hedrick would like nothing more than to match this woman, thought to be in her early 20s when she died, with her name. He would like to locate her family, if she had any, to explain what happened to her and to offer them an opportunity for closure.

Because maybe if he knew something about her, he might be able to figure out how she wound up dead and floating in the Delta- Mendota Canal so long ago, her body bearing 65 stab wounds. And if he knew that, maybe -- just maybe, and with plenty of luck -- he'd be able to find her killer.

That is why a team of investigators, deputy coroners and an anthropologist from the University of California at Merced exhumed her body Friday morning.

"We're hoping the advances in science, technology and pathology will allow us to identify this woman," Sheriff Adam Christianson said.

After joining the homicide investigations unit about 18 months ago, Hedrick found himself drawn to such cold cases. There are roughly

70 binders in a bookcase in the investigations unit. Each represents an unsolved case, some of which date back to the 1960s.

"I started taking them home on weekends and reading them," Hedrick said.

This one, however, piqued his interest because of the circumstances, including the age of the case. On Sept. 11, 1971 -- yes, 30 years to the day before the 9-11 we recall so vividly -- a U.S. Department of the Interior employee came upon the woman's body while driving along the Delta- Mendota Canal near Westley.

Forensic pathologist William Ernoehazy (now deceased) performed the autopsy at a funeral home in Newman because the county didn't have its own coroner's facility at the time.

The Bee reported that she wore only a blouse, though the coroner's report stated that there was no evidence of sexual assault. Detectives back then said the nature of her wounds indicated she'd struggled with her attacker, who, after killing her, attempted to sever her fingers and hands to hinder identification through fingerprints. Her right thumb was missing.

The file contained a side profile photograph taken during the autopsy, but no frontal facial shot. The Bee also reported that three people identified her as Luanne Schadt, 25, of Patterson.

The mystery of her identity solved, right? Wrong.

The day after being ID'd as the corpse, Schadt reportedly returned to her motel room in Patterson, only to find it sealed by investigators. She contacted them to let them know she was, indeed, still alive.

Detectives had to start all over, this time with no ID, no known acquaintances or friends coming forward with possible information, and no leads beyond a pool of blood found a few miles away, where they assumed the attack took place. They knew she stood about 5-feet-5-inches tall and weighed about 135 pounds. She had manicured nails and her teeth were well cared for.

More important, they found no missing person report from anywhere in the United States that matched the description of the stabbing victim.

They guessed she might have been a hitchhiker who accepted a ride from the wrong person.

With no other leads, the case went cold. She received an indigent burial in the southeast corner of Patterson District Cemetery, which has doubled in size since, general manager Bryan Bingham said.

Her grave now is in the center of the park.

"We have lots of John Does and Baby Does, but she's our only Jane Doe," Bingham said.

Could she have been a victim of the notorious Zodiac Killer, who murdered at least five people in Northern California from December 1968 to October 1969? Five of them were shot to death. The sixth died from stab wounds, while her companion survived despite being stabbed six times.

In March 1970, a pregnant woman and her 10-month-old daughter were abducted near Modesto by a man who drove them around the valley and, according to some police reports, threatened to kill them. Kathleen Johns and her daughter ultimately escaped and hitched a ride to the police station in Patterson. While giving her statement, Johns reportedly saw a drawing of the Zodiac Killer and claimed he was the one who abducted them.

Johns' conflicting statements, though, cast doubt upon whether she had, indeed, encountered and survived the Zodiac. The murder Hedrick is revisiting happened just 18 months after that abduction. The Zodiac claimed 37 kills, though only the five were confirmed. There's nothing to suggest the Zodiac Killer, who never was captured, claimed credit for this murder, sheriff's Detective Mark Nuno said.

For certain, whoever did it now has more than a 36-year head start over Hedrick and other sheriff's detectives. The question is whether technology that didn't exist in 1971 can help them identify her today.

Vicki Wedel, an assistant professor of biological anthropology at UC Merced, said she will be able to confirm the victim's age at the time of death, as well as sex, height and ancestry. She'll also be able to do a facial reconstruction that, detectives hope, will aid them in gaining information that will lead to identifying the victim. Christianson hopes to develop an accurate likeness, one that can be distributed nationwide.

Wedel is working through a partnership involving the university and the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department, she said, "to put a face and name to this individual."

DNA samples will go to the state's Department of Justice and its Missing and Unidentified Persons unit, said Kristi Herr Ah You, chief deputy coroner.

Garry Found, a forensic odontologist who works regularly with the coroner's office, examined the dental remains.

Solving her murder would be an unbelievable coup, even in this era of science and technology.

Establishing her identity alone would be worth the effort, Hedrick said.

"It's a long shot," he admitted. "But it's a step we have to take."