Kennewick — A mystery started when construction workers spotted a body floating in the Columbia River by the blue bridge nearly 40 years ago.
Now Benton County Coroner Bill Leach is hoping to find some answers.
On Monday morning, officials will be exhuming the remains of the unknown woman buried in Richland
“We need to identify this person so we can find who the family is,” Leach told the Herald. “I hope that we can find family and provide them with information about what happened to their mom or grandma.”
Not much is known about Jane Doe.
The lower part of her body was discovered near the blue bridge on Sept. 2, 1986, according to a Tri-City Herald story at the time. No other remains of her were ever found.
Forensic Pathologist William Brady of Portland believed she had been in the water for at least six months and that she’d given birth to at least one child.
Brady told the Herald at that time that the woman was about 5-foot-6 to 5-foot-8, about 30 to 35 years old with brownish-blonde hair.
But Brady found no wounds and was not able to determine how she died.
“We may never know,” Benton County Sheriff Lt. Don Smith told the Herald.
Without more information to go on, she was buried in Resthaven Cemetery on Williams Boulevard, her grave in a now forgotten corner of the central Richland facility.
Nearby markers have been vandalized or damaged by weather. Hers seems to have been protected by luck.
Benton County sheriff’s investigators at the time submitted what they knew about her into a federal database in hopes of being able to connect her to a missing person case or identify her. But no link was ever found.
Jane Doe’s grave
Leach didn’t know anything about Jane Doe when he started working in the coroner’s office 10 years ago, or when he became the coroner in 2018.
It wasn’t until he got a call in July from a man doing cemetery research in Washington, who found a picture of the grave listed on findagrave.com. The caller wanted to know if she was ever entered into a missing person database.
That kicked off months of searching by Leach, who soon discovered not many records existed from 1986. The coroner’s office didn’t have them, and Washington State Archives records dated back to 1990.
Many of the people involved in the investigation, including Brady, have since died.
Leach was able to reach Brady’s daughter, who said she had gotten rid of most of her father’s old records. A search there proved fruitless.
Leach wants to end the mystery of Jane Doe’s identity with DNA testing.
With the help of a grant from Spokane, he is exhuming her remains on Monday. A Benton County sheriff’s detective also will be on hand to help with the investigation.
Leach said he’s also been helped by Einan’s at Sunset funeral home.
This is the first time Leach has been involved in disinterring someone to identify them, something that is rarely done.
“We don’t know what we’re going to encounter. We know she was buried in a wooden casket and placed in a concrete vault,” Leach said.
Othram Labs will perform the DNA test with the aim of of finding a relative, possibly her child or grandchild, Leach said.
The company’s technology enables the U.S. National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, according to their website.
In 1986, DNA fingerprinting was still relatively new. It’s first use in a criminal case was the same year, and no one collected any from the remains in Tri-Cities.
Leach said they hope to find enough information to determine how she died as well, so he can complete the woman’s death certificate.
He is going to talk to the state anthropologist to see if there is anyone who could perform an examination.