Naming the Nameless: The Internet Tries to Identify John and Jane Does
These sites are encyclopedias of the unknown missing and dead ... and can help unlock their secrets.
It was sunrise and I was still sitting at my computer, clicking back and forth between browser tabs. I was sure I’d found him. The John Doe from the West Virginia woods, a suicide who’d been found with a tell-tale plastic grocery bag over his face. He was the missing man from Indiana. The name of the small grocery chain matched. The man’s description matched.
Somehow, he’d ended up hundreds of miles from home. What took him so far? Had he driven till he found the right spot to die? I had questions, but first I needed to contact the police in West Virginia with my news.
It was a grim situation, but I had goosebumps from putting the puzzle together.
“Yeah,” said the West Virginia cop, “Someone in his family figured it out a month ago. But thanks.”
I’d spent a night on The Doe Network. I’d dug through newspaper archives. And I’d found the answer—but I was too late. My disappointment was real but mitigated by knowing his family had him back.
That’s the power in sites like the Doe Network and the Charley Project. Sites that list the unknown and the missing. They present one-page summaries of mysteries waiting to be solved, and sometimes, someone solves them.
The Doe Network was created—at least in part—out of one man’s effort to identify a Jane Doe.
Jennifer Marra launched the site in 1999 then combined the effort with Todd Matthews’s Yahoo Cold Case group. Matthews had come by his obsession in an understandable way: He’d played a role in identifying “Tent Girl,” an unknown young woman—victim of a homicide—found not far from Georgetown, Kentucky in 1968.
Matthews had sifted through every missing person’s notice he could find on the internet at the time, comparing information he found there with what was known about Tent Girl. Eventually, found a name: Barbara Ann Hackman Taylor. He sent the information to her family and it was later confirmed that she and Tent Girl were one and the same.
The Doe Network is a sprawling website with entries covering the anonymous dead around the world. There are entries there from every state in the Union, Canada, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. I could probably spend days just exploring it, and sometimes I’ve come close.
The Charley Project has a narrow focus. It’s run by Meaghan Good, who was associated with Doe Network founder Marra as well before beginning the Charley Project in 2004. Good’s site focuses on “approximately 9,500 ‘cold case’ missing people mainly from the United States.”
Good’s entries are also typically far more detailed than many found at the Doe Network. The latter site’s size doesn’t always allow for more than listing basic information.
If exploring the Doe Network can feel like sifting through a digital Potter’s Field and trying to identify all the unknown bodies there, then the Charley Project is like an encyclopedia of tragedy—mothers and fathers gone in the night. There are mysterious bloodstains and puzzling personal items left behind, and too often no one knows if those missing are still alive—or if they could be found in the Doe Network’s archive.
Many—maybe most—entries on both sites don’t necessarily involve crime. They are suicides who chose to vanish, or wanderers who were finally too lost to ever find a home again.
However, the following handful of intriguing cases from both sites are about possible murder victims.
The Doe Network
52UFTX, Unidentified Female: She was between 24 and 34, a white woman with fine, brown hair. She was on the short side, with fair skin and an upper plate. Her remaining teeth were bad. She’d had a rough life—examination revealed many old, healed injuries. She was found in 1991 in League, Texas, in an area known as “The Killing Fields.” Hers was the fourth body found there, and the victims were all similar in appearance. Another victim found in the area was Laura Miller, whose father Tim later founded Texas Equusearch, a group devoted to finding missing persons.
2516UMVT, Unidentified Male: On May 15, 1935, a woman and her daughter were looking for flowers near an East Middlebury, Vermont hunting camp. They made a horrific discovery: the bones of three murder victims. The remains were those of an adult woman, the teenager, and a boy who was between 9 and 11 years old. Investigation determined they’d each been shot in the head at some point in late 1932. DNA (obviously recovered many years later, though the entry doesn’t state this) found a relationship between the teen and the woman, but the smaller boy’s bones didn’t yield enough to test. Examinations conducted in the ‘30s indicated they’d all had excellent dental work.
119UFMA, Unidentified Female, a.k.a. “The Lady of the Dunes”: Her auburn hair was pulled back and secured with a gold-flecked band. Her head lay on a pair of Wrangler jeans and a blue bandanna, her body on a light green beach blanket in the Race Point Dunes in Provincetown, Massachusetts. In life she’d taken care of herself. She had expensive dental work, was fit, and had pink-painted toenails. She was bludgeoned to death and nearly decapitated. Some of her teeth were missing—pulled out by her killer—and her hands had been removed. The woman who would eventually be called “The Lady of the Dunes” had been laying on that green blanket long enough that when she was found, decomposition obscured her features. Her killer clearly wanted it that way. While a serial killer confessed to the crime, his mental instabilities tended to discredit his claim. Infamous gangster Whitey Bulger is a person of interest in the case, but no one has been arrested.
The Charley Project
Martha Leanne Green, Tennessee: She went by Leanne. I know because I was in college in Clarksville, Tennessee when the 17-year-old disappeared in April 1987. Local news called her Leanne, and for a time they couldn’t leave her case alone. She was pretty, 5’6”, with dark, wavy hair. On April 15 Leanne’s brother was driving her home from work in White Bluff, Tennessee, a little town in mostly rural Dickson County. Their car ran out of gas. It was a state highway, 9 pm. Leanne’s brother—her twin, Lawson—left her in the car as he headed out on foot to buy fuel. He was gone for just 15 minutes, and that was long enough for her to vanish, leaving her purse and keys behind. Police had a solid suspect in the case, but he was later killed in prison.
Mary Shotwell Little, Georgia: The disappearance of Mary Shotwell Little haunts Atlanta, even today. The 25-year-old bank secretary was newly-married when she disappeared on October 14, 1965. On that Fall day, Mary did some perfectly average things. She bought groceries after leaving work, then dined with a co-worker in a restaurant in the Lenox Square Shopping Center, which still sits today in the middle of Buckhead, Atlanta’s wealthiest neighborhood. After dinner, Mary headed out to her 1965 Mercury Comet. She vanished. At first it seemed her car was gone as well, but it was later found where it was parked the night of her disappearance. Mysteriously, the car was coated with dust. Inside were her groceries, soda bottles, a pack of cigarettes, and a woman’s underclothes. Even more mysteriously, Mary’s signature was found on credit card receipts signed in Charlotte, North Carolina on October 15. The labyrinth of mysteries surrounding this case would take a book—a bank co-worker was even murdered almost two years later, in May 1967, and her murder was never solved. Police have been divided over the years regarding what happened to Mary. Some think she left on her own, others believe she was murdered. Either way, no one has seen her in almost 53 years.
Lisa Stasi, Kansas: Lisa had escaped an abusive relationship and was living in a halfway house in Kansas City when she met John Edward Robinson Sr. She didn’t know that was his real name. He told her he was John Osborne. Soon after meeting Robinson, Lisa told family that she was getting involved in a program geared toward helping young mothers. So, in January of 1985 she and daughter Tiffany—still a baby—took a hotel room in Overland Park, Kansas. “Osborne” paid for the room. The last anyone heard from Lisa was a panicked phone call she made to her mother-in-law, saying someone wanted her to sign some sheets of paper. The last thing she said was “here they come.” She was never heard from again. Years later, John Robinson would turn out to be the first internet serial killer, a sexual sadist who lured unwitting women by any way he could—including online—before torturing and killing them. He may have killed Lisa—possibly one of his first victims—for her baby Tiffany. Tiffany was given to Robinson’s brother and his wife, who had no idea she was stolen. A DNA test proved the girl—raised as Heather Robinson—was really Tiffany in 2000. Lisa Stasi has never been found.
Those are just six cases. If you click through and keep clicking, then like me you may begin to find correlations and associations. They might be correct. Then, like Todd Matthews, you might be able to bring someone’s family a small measure of peace. It’s worth the time.
The Best Stuff on the Web, Curated
The Best Stuff on the Web, Curated