The grave site is shown of "Beth Doe," a woman whose dismembered remains were found in suitcases along the banks of the Lehigh River near White Haven on Dec. 20, 1976.AP photo
WHITE HAVEN — On Dec. 20, 1976, a teenager walking along the banks of the Lehigh River outside this Pocono Mountains town made a gruesome discovery: the dismembered remains of a young woman and her full-term fetus.
Thirty years later, police are no closer to finding her killer, primarily because they are still missing a crucial bit of information.
Try as they might, authorities haven’t come close to making an identification. And their prospects dim a little more with each passing year.
“It’s as cold as cold can be, unfortunately,” said Cpl. Thomas McAndrew, a state police detective who took over the case a year ago. “The killer’s never been caught, and never will be until we find out who she is.”
The woman was strangled, shot, dismembered and stuffed into three suitcases that were flung over a bridge along Interstate 80.
The killer was probably aiming for the Lehigh River, 300 feet below, but missed. Two of the suitcases broke open on impact, spilling the victim’s head and torso and her female fetus. The third suitcase contained the woman’s arms and legs. Her nose and ears had been cut off.
The coroner estimated she had been dead less than 24 hours.
The crime scene yielded a wealth of evidence, but little of it was useful. In addition to her remains, investigators had the suitcases, all of them the same size and missing their handles. Some body parts were wrapped in a rust-colored chenille bedspread; six soggy sections of the New York Sunday News covered her torso.
A series of letters and numbers, written in ink on the palm of her left hand, provided a tantalizing clue. But a police check of license plates and CB call signs turned up nothing.
“She haunts me, she really does,” said Nancy Monahan, the Pennsylvania director of the Doe Network, a group of amateur sleuths that seeks to attach names to unidentified bodies. “I’ve had dreams about her.”
Dreams, and questions, such as: How could a young woman, about to give birth, have simply vanished days or weeks before Christmas and no one reported her missing?
Was she someone on the margins of society — an illegal immigrant, perhaps?
Was her own family covering up for the killer, and that’s why no one came forward?
And what about that writing on her hand?
At the White Haven Police Department, where an artist’s conception of what the victim looked like hangs on a wall, Patrolman Thomas Szoke has his own theories about the case.
“My feeling is she is probably a runaway from another state and her family doesn’t know what happened to her,” he said. “Or she may have been a throwaway, where the parent says, ’You’re 15, get out.”’
The victim’s family might have even filed a missing persons report, Szoke said, but such a report, if it exists, would likely be collecting dust in a police department file cabinet somewhere.
McAndrew said he would like to exhume the body to gather DNA samples, but the process is time-consuming and expensive. And while DNA samples can be run through FBI and missing persons databases, a match would be a long shot, given the time elapsed.
“DNA testing can be used in unidentified body cases, but it is not an important tool at this time because the number of people whose DNA is on record anywhere represents a very, very small percentage of the population,” state police spokesman Jack Lewis said via e-mail.
The victim had previous dental work, and her fetus was healthy at the time of death, indicating the woman took care of herself and her unborn daughter.
For McAndrew, learning her identity would be a small way to give her some dignity.
“It’s amazing that no one has identified her, that somebody out there isn’t missing her,” he said.
The victim and her fetus are buried in a paupers cemetery several miles from where the remains were found. The tomb is marked with a simple white cross and a small granite marker that says, “Beth Doe.”
Which, unless there is a miraculous break in the case, is how history will remember her.