CASPER — Found near a lonesome Nevada interstate, she gave little away for more than 15 years.
Authorities believe her body — posed like a cross, nude, shot once in the back, once in the chest — went unnoticed for roughly a week. An Interstate 80 traveler stopped to stretch his legs and stumbled across the lurid scene on a fall afternoon in 1993.
A month later, locals put her in the indigent section of the Elko County cemetery. And she has laid there since, silent and unknown — a victim of a violent end with any notion of justice as faint as headlights thrown out across a Great Basin Desert night.
Late last year, though, with the help of forensic technology, the woman whose donated headstone asks, “Who am I?” whispered from her grave a clue authorities hope may finally answer that question.
In October, a detective with the Elko County Sheriff’s Office sent a hair sample from the woman to a Salt Lake City laboratory. By matching isotope sequences in the specimen with that of drinking water, technicians were able to pinpoint an area in the country where the woman had lived.
The lab concluded that for the last seven months of her life, she resided in Lincoln County, Wyo., near the town of Afton.
“Maybe she was a seasonal worker there,” Detective Dennis Journigan said. “Maybe she had family there. Who knows?”
Whatever the circumstances may be, Journigan said pinning an identity to the woman — an act that would unseal her history, family and friends — could one day help reveal a killer.
“We’re hoping that someone somewhere recognizes her, or remembers her in some way, and can help us figure out who she was.”
‘Shafter Jane Doe’
A California geologist driving across northern Nevada on Nov. 16, 1993, found the site where someone had tucked blond, pretty “Shafter Jane Doe” in sagebrush. The name history pinned on her came about because she was found near the Interstate 80 exit for Shafter, a near-ghost town in northeast Nevada.
An autopsy produced a few vague but important details.
She was 5 feet, 7 inches tall, weighed roughly 140 pounds and had given birth to at least one child.
Her teeth — she had all of them — showed her to be roughly 27 years old at the time of her death. She was in the process of having a root canal.
While that information has led authorities to dentist offices and hospitals, her fingertips have them seeking out beauty parlors. “It looks like they were professionally done,” Journigan said of the woman’s fingernails, which were painted bright pink.
Each ear had been pierced once, though she was found with no jewelry.
A medical examiner said a 2-by-4-inch mark on the back of the woman’s right calf was a burn scar. Journigan, however, thinks it may actually have been a birth mark.
She was shot twice with a medium-caliber handgun. She had also been severely beaten, but Journigan said there were no signs of sexual assault.
There were trace amounts of alcohol and marijuana in her system.
Because the body had sat in desert elements for at least six days — “She was fairly well degraded,” Journigan said — investigators managed only a partial fingerprint from her right thumb. That print, bounced through every database available, has led nowhere.
A portion of her skull sits today in the Minnesota State Crime Lab. DNA tests are being run, as investigators wait for results with crossed fingers.
Eaton a suspect?
He points out the investigation’s official stance is that there are “no suspects” in the case at the moment. But Journigan, a law enforcement veteran of 30-plus years, harbors a titillating theory.
The detective said authorities have placed convicted murderer Dale Wayne Eaton in the Elko area from 1992 to 1995.
“We’ve got him here when she was found and prior to that,” he said, adding he was arrested there in 1992 for domestic violence.
Eaton has been on death row since 2004, when a Natrona County jury determined he should die for the 1988 kidnapping, rape and murder of 18-year-old Lisa Marie Kimmell.
Authorities say not long after Shafter Jane Doe’s body was found, someone reported having spoken to a white male “at about sunrise Nov. 9 in Oasis. ... (i)nvestigators believe the homicide occurred around that time,” according to reports.
The town of Oasis, Nev., is approximately 12 miles north of Shafter.
Authorities searched in vain for the man the witness claimed to have spoken to. In 1993, not long after the body was found, the Elko daily newspaper reported the man to be “6 feet 1 inch tall with brown hair and a short beard.”
According to the Wyoming Department of Corrections, Eaton, a 56-year-old white male, is 5 feet 9 inches tall with brown hair and eyes.
What piques Journigan’s interest, though, is the description of the vehicle the man seen in Oasis was allegedly driving — “a mid-1970s station wagon,” possibly painted green and brown.
Journigan believes the vehicle, which he described as a “camper van,” might be connected to Eaton, whose 2004 trial revealed he owned a 1979 Dodge pickup, a 1963 Ford truck and a passenger van.
If Eaton is behind the murder, though, Journigan doubts he will ever confess.
“He’s not talking,” he said of the condemned man.
‘Who am I?’
Elko County has had 19 unsolved homicides since 1972. Shafter Jane Doe’s case, though, sunk deep in Elko.
Journigan, who chips away at the unsolved murder with every clue he drums up, said his department has spent more time and money trying to identify her than others.
“The town has, in a way, adopted her, made her one of us,” said Yvette Waters.
The executive director of the Elko County Committee Against Domestic Violence, Waters still tears up when talking about the case. In 2003, roughly 10 years after the body was found, she took part in a memorial service at the gravesite. A local funeral home donated a headstone that was placed at the burial site. It reads, “Shafter Jane Doe. Found Nov. 16, 1993. Who am I?”
“For me, its a reminder for people that there is an answer out there,” Waters said. “There are very few people around here now who actually were here when she was found. When we’re gone, no one is going to be here to remind people what happened.”
She keeps an FBI-generated portrait of the dead woman on her office wall for the same reason.
“I’ve looked at her face every day since March 15, 1996.”
Waters travels to the Elko County Cemetery each month to visit the gravesite. The last time she left flowers was Nov. 16, the anniversary of the day the body was found.
She describes the emergence of the new Wyoming connection as “phenomenal,” and hopes it leads to the unknown woman’s biography being colored in.
“It’s my hope,” Waters said. “That we can replace her headstone one day with one that begins, ‘I am ... .”
Contact William Browning at firstname.lastname@example.org or 307-266-0534.