By the time she was found above Divide Road, she was scattered bones. Also found: scraps of a belt, some hair, possibly reddish-brown. Someone had apparently covered her body with tree branches — possibly years before a hiker found her skull and brought down to a campsite near Windy Point in a bucket on July 7, 1994.
There was no ID; decomposition and animal activity meant only part of her skeleton was recovered. Neither bullet wounds, nor scrapes consistent with a knife was found on the bones. Her manner of death was, however, deemed a homicide.
The mystery of Windy Point Jane Doe, one of Montrose County’s coldest cases, just passed the quarter-century mark. Investigators have come and gone; leads trickled in, then dried up. Enough DNA was extracted to develop profiles and there have been at least two forensic reconstructions of Windy Point Jane’s face — but the central questions are the same today as they were 25 years ago. Who is she? How did she die? Who is responsible?
Investigators are asking new question, though: Might the growing use of familial DNA for genealogical purposes at last give the long-dead woman back her true name?
Searching for Jane’s identity
“I think it’s important for our community to find out who Windy Point Jane is and do our part in helping to get as much justice as we can for her,” Montrose County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Ted Valerio said.
Valerio assumed command of the investigation division at MCSO in January, picking up where retired investigator David Harrison left off with Windy Point.
Valerio brought in Chuck Barton, who has more than 30 years of law enforcement experience, to help conduct background checks on potential new hires. He’s also put Barton, who is working as a civilian, to use going over the voluminous Windy Point Jane Doe files to develop a synopsis that will help current investigators get up to speed on the case, which is but one of many they are handling.
“We’re looking at it from different avenues,” Valerio said.
Once the case synopsis is complete, next steps include using the victim’s DNA profiles for genealogical testing.
The basic idea gained prominence nationwide after investigators in California were able to crack the case of the Golden State Killer. They submitted DNA collected from one of the crime scenes to a genealogical research site, where people researching their family history can compare their DNA to others’. Although results were not immediate, they led to a suspect whose discarded DNA then was collected and matched to the crime scene’s sample.
For Windy Point Jane, though, local detectives might upload a DNA sample in search of a possible familial match that could identify the victim, rather than point to a suspect.
“Now that it’s more prevalent, it’s kind of at the forefront of technology. It’s an option for us that we’re looking at to give us insight on who she is and where she comes from,” Valerio said.
He’s not certain whether the MCSO would use a commercial genealogical research site, but said it would have to use something that operates in a similar fashion. The sample would not be used for any other purpose but identification.
“Honestly, the first step in solving her murder is finding out who she is. That’s our biggest hurdle we haven’t been able to clear yet,” Valerio said.
For the past 25 years, Dr. Thomas Canfield has been committed to identifying Windy Point Jane. A retired forensic pathologist and current county coroner, Canfield in 2008 even turned over a copy of the entire pathology report on the victim, hoping for publicity that would generate critical leads. He still wants those answers.
“We have done everything we know how to do. We have done anthropology, odontology, pathology. We have registered the case with NamUs (a federal database of missing or unidentified persons) as well as with the FBI,” Canfield said.
“There is not a stone unturned, as far as I’m concerned. But I have to have something to compare. I can’t compare just air. Somebody has to give me a lead and we’ll follow up that lead with forensic testing.”
But Canfield’s not convinced poking through DNA research databases is the way to go: he doesn’t think it would work, plus those who provided their DNA to a commercial genealogy site didn’t give permission for that kind of use.
“I know it’s solved a couple of cases, but I think it’s a breach,” Canfield said, referring to living people’s genetic material that can hint at health issues — protected medical information.
Although California authorities believe the strategy — and significant follow-up investigation — identified their serial killer, in other cases, the tactic has led police to the wrong person, published reports said.
District Attorney Dan Hotsenpiller said he doesn’t know that there would necessarily be ethical problems with reverse-DNA research through the private sites, where people have freely provided their genetic material.
“We use public information all the time. If it’s public information, you don’t have an expectation of privacy,” he said.
As for instances in which someone is identified as a suspect because a relative provided a DNA sample to such sites?
“Tough,” said Hotsenpiller. The DNA submitted belongs to the person who volunteered it, he said.
“There are no constitutional implications for stuff like that. You can protect your own information.”
It is challenging when there is victim DNA, but no comparison material, Colorado Bureau of Investigation analyst Audrey Simkins said.
“Things are changing quickly right now when it comes to DNA and genealogical work that can be done. Testing that might provide additional lead information isn’t something the state lab is equipped to do right now. A lot of times, it comes down to money and the amount of DNA available,” she said.
“When cases are as old as Windy Point, as technology changes, we try to see what is available. … Now is kind of an exciting time for us to take another look at these cases, generally, to see what else we (can do).”
CBI uses the NamUs database to compare its evidence to missing persons cases reported there.
“That’s the other reason it’s so critical when we’re talking about missing persons cases, where people have a loved one who is missing. We really want to make sure we’re collecting DNA from family members so in the future, we can identify these remains,” Simkins said.
Families of missing people provide samples that are uploaded to NamUs, strictly to compare against missing and unidentified persons.
“It does not get to search against arrestees. It is only used for missing persons cases,” Simkins said.
Sending samples to commercial DNA sites is on the minds of many right now, because of the Golden State Killer case, she said, but CBI wants to see how that will play out.
“It’s certainly something that’s on our radar,” Simkins said.
“My thought is if somebody put it (DNA) on there to find family members, we would kind of be doing the same thing,” Valerio said.
“That’s kind of one of our only avenues to locate her (Windy Point Jane). There may be some concerns there, something we’ll definitely talk to our attorneys about. This is kind of new ground, definitely, for us, to utilize that type of technology.”
Just maybe …
Valerio isn’t pinning all his hopes on an updated case synopsis and new avenues for DNA testing. Standard police work remains at the forefront and his team is building off Harrison and other past investigators’ efforts.
Harrison generated some new leads after an updated forensic reconstruction in 2013 gave the public a new idea of what the victim possibly looked like.
Last year, however, the case was deemed to be a standstill, absent a confession or similar specific event. (The investigator who came after Harrison also considered using commercial genealogy sites, but in 2018 said the agency had to carefully balance logistics and liabilities.)
Since then, though, a Nevada law enforcement agency finally acted on Harrison’s previous request to write a search warrant, Valerio said.
The warrant pertained to a specific individual in Nevada’s custody, but the Nevada agency only recently contacted the MCSO to see if it was still interested in having a warrant drawn up for DNA evidence that might connect the individual to Windy Point Jane — or rule him out.
“That’s still a longshot,” Valerio said. “We’re now kind of at the point where we might be able to get some of that done. It might bring new information, or not, but either way, we will have ferreted out that information.”
Although it’s pure speculation, investigators past and present have considered known killers, who were active in Colorado during the possible time of Windy Point Jane’s death.
Authorities have in the past said Jane could have died as recently as six months prior to her discovery, but in June, Canfield said otherwise.
“The bones are weathered. She’d been there for several years,” Canfield said.
That leaves a range of possibilities, even those seemingly as far-fetched as Windy Point Jane being one of Ted Bundy’s Colorado victims.
The MCSO is looking at more recent crimes, though.
“We’re moving forward on what Dave (Harrison) was working on. He was looking at (man) and his involvement in Nevada. That’s what the search warrants were about,” Valerio said.
“Do we have anything groundbreaking leading us (there)? Not really, but it’s still a lead we need to follow through with.”
The genealogy prospect is likely the most promising lead at the moment, he also said, especially as the databases maintained by private research sites grow.
“It may or may not lead to prosecution, but what’s really important is closure to some family. There’s a family out there who has lost a loved one and nobody’s made that connection,” Valerio said.
“Closure for that family would be a big deal.”
Katharhynn Heidelberg is the Montrose Daily Press assistant editor and senior writer. Follow her on Twitter, @kathMDP.