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Body exhumed in hopes of giving 1996 victim a name

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Highland Park — After two decades in an unmarked grave, Michigan State Police have exhumed the body of a young murder victim to extract DNA in hopes of cracking the case and giving her a name.

Authorities exhumed the body of an unidentified woman from a Canton Township cemetery in October.

The woman was found fatally wounded at first light on May 20, 1996, in an alley on Cortland near the Lodge Freeway in Highland Park.

Neighbors at the time told police they’d heard a gunshot in the early morning hours prior. The woman, believed to be between the ages of 15 and 25, had suffered a gunshot wound to the throat.

Highland Park Police sought tips and reached out to the media repeatedly, but no eyewitnesses came forward, nor did potential relatives.

With no leads, the girl was ultimately laid to rest in an unmarked grave the following April as the state’s “unidentified female No. 17” for 1996, says Michigan Police Detective Sgt. Sarah Krebs.

Left: The woman, shown in an artist rendering, wore a teddy-bear shaped watch.

But Krebs said the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in 2015 provided funding to have the girl exhumed from a Canton Township cemetery to obtain DNA. Her body was unearthed in October. It’s now being stored with the Wayne County Medical Examiner’s Office.

The DNA sampling is being processed, Krebs said, adding she’s hopeful that a fresh look at the long unsolved case will generate tips.

“There has been quite a bit of activity on this case, but still no leads. Right now, we have no idea who she is,” Krebs said. “She was a young girl, which makes you think somebody realized she was missing, too.”

Highland Park Police Detective Kelly Dupuis has been working the case for two years along with state and federal authorities. It’s an investigation she says has been “completely cold” despite the woman’s clear description, unique clothing and watch.

“We haven’t gotten anywhere with it,” Dupuis said.

The Jane Doe was dressed in a white skirt and a T-shirt covered with yellow smiley faces and red lip prints, her naturally curly reddish-brown hair pulled into a ponytail.

She wore size eight-and-a-half black tennis shoes with white trim, and a gold-tone watch shaped like a teddy bear with a brown leather wrist strap. She had long, purple-painted fingernails and pink polish on her toes.

The girl had freckles and brown eyes, was 5-foot-3 and weighed about 190 pounds. Although the autopsy report described her as an African-American female, police say she appeared to be bi-racial or even caucasian.

Dupuis says the body was found close to the Lodge Freeway, which leads authorities to believe the woman may have been traveling along the freeway with her killer.

“I want someone to come forward if they recognize her. That’s No. 1,” she said. “Even if they don’t know who she is, if they know something about the homicide.”

The Jane Doe marks the fifth exhumation of a possible juvenile that the state has conducted since 2010 with funding from the national center.

The case could be viewed by the public for the first time in November 2013, when it was entered into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System — or NamUs, Krebs said.

Michigan State Police have identified 45 people since they began using the database as cases have been resolved by DNA evidence, fingerprints or dental records connected to missing persons.

Michigan has 301 unidentified persons cases. About 30 of those are juveniles, Krebs said.

In two recent cases, the Michigan State Police Missing Persons Coordination Unit identified remains leading to convictions in the deaths of French artist Bilal Berreni and Detroit grandmother Evelyn Gunter.

The State Police unit includes Krebs, who is the coordinator of the missing persons side, while her colleague, Jane Wankmiller, is an analyst with human remains, dealing with unidentified cases.

Prior to forming the unit, Michigan officials were not submitting DNA evidence or actively putting cases into a database to try to connect the state’s missing persons with unidentified remains, Krebs said.

Officials say there’s a chance that the unknown woman’s DNA could find a hit if a family reference sample is logged in the system.

In 2011, State Police and other Michigan law enforcement agencies joined forces to solicit family members and friends of Michigan’s missing to gather for a free data-collection event and vigil.

The annual program, Missing in Michigan, was spearheaded by Krebs and is the first of its kind in the state — possibly the country — that commemorates missing loved ones and allows authorities and relatives to log new tips, collect DNA and update and create missing person profiles in NamUs. This year’s event will take place May 14 at the Detroit Public Safety Headquarters.

“There are hundreds and hundreds of family reference DNA samples now due to the event,” said Krebs.

Anyone with questions or information on the Highland Park Jane Doe case can submit them to msp-missingpersons@michigan.gov or, contact Detective Dupuis at (313) 600-9205.