Eight years after an unidentified young woman’s body was discovered in 1980 in Blue Earth, Minn., a Minnesota state trooper named Robert Leroy Nelson confessed to handcuffing the woman, raping, torturing and then strangling her, writes G.W. Schulz in the new Reveal series, Left for Dead: Inside America’s Coldest Cases, from the Center for Investigative Reporting.
But Nelson, on duty at the time of the murder, said he never knew the young woman’s name. She had been buried as Blue Earth Jane Doe, placing her among more than 10,000 others like her who make up a national list of people found deceased without an identity. The FBI estimates there are some 80,000 people missing in the U.S. on any given day.
The young woman might well have remained on that bleak list without the efforts of a database operator named Deb Anderson, who launched a 14-year journey to discover her identify, Schulz reports.
Details about the missing and unidentified dead are recorded in NamUs, a growing but voluntary federal database housed at the Center for Human Identification at the University of North Texas in Fort Worth.
Members of the public can search the database and alert investigators to possible matches. NamUs contains thousands of clues, including locations, dates, physical descriptions, photographs taken post-mortem and more. Ultimately, authorities then must decide whether to take the next step and compare DNA or dental records.
But the Reveal investigation found that neglect, indifference and a lack of will or resources dedicated by police, coroners, medical examiners and others still hinder identifications. Law enforcement agencies at times have let solvable cold cases languish, only to have citizens piece together answers on their own.
Such was certainly the story of how Deb Anderson worked to learn the identity of Blue Earth Jane Doe, who proved to be an 18-year-old hitchhiking through Minnesota, whose family had first reported her missing from their Bay City, Texas, home in May 1980.
To read G.W. Schulz’s part 4 of Left for Dead: Inside America’s Coldest Cases on the Reveal site, please click here.
To watch I-News reporter Katie Kuntz’s story on a vexing Boulder County John Doe, developed in collaboration with Reveal, please click here.
Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey and others discuss the complexity of such cases on Colorado State of Mind. Please click here.