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45 years ago, a woman found a human skull in her home. Now DNA, genetics technology and fundraising may help police solve the mystery

By Rebecca Johnson, Chicago Tribune
Published: January 13, 2024, 12:31pm
4 Photos
Photos and paperwork from the original 1978 case file for a Batavia cold case on Jan. 3, 2024, in St. Charles.
Photos and paperwork from the original 1978 case file for a Batavia cold case on Jan. 3, 2024, in St. Charles. (Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune/TNS) Photo Gallery

A couple remodeling their rented home in Batavia, Illinois, 45 years ago found some interesting items behind the walls — old bottles, shoes and corncobs. But one discovery was the stuff of nightmares.

While ripping out a plaster wall, the wife spotted human bones in the debris, including a piece of a skull and a lower jawbone, according to a 1978 article from the Batavia Chronicle.

“When I first found it, I was hysterical,” Martha Skinner told the newspaper. “I could tell it was human because of its size and I just freaked out.”

The couple called the Batavia police, who eventually sent the remains to an anthropology professor from Northern Illinois University. He determined they were likely from a woman in her mid-20s, and could have been in the home for decades.

But the investigation didn’t turn up any answers, and the case went cold. The woman was classified as Jane Doe in the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System.

Now the police and the Kane County coroner’s office are reevaluating the case with the help of modern DNA testing and genetic technology. They’re hoping to raise $7,500 from donations to fund the investigation.

“The fact that we have unidentified human remains in our community and that we have this opportunity where we could potentially identify this person and tell the story, I think it’s worth doing,” said Batavia Deputy Chief Eric Blowers.

The skull resurfaced during a cold case review last year at the Police Department, Kane County Coroner Rob Russell said. He said after the department called him about the remains, the coroner’s office took custody of the skull. Usually the coroner’s office will already have custody, Russell explained, making this case a rare occurrence.

“Nobody at Batavia police should be held culpable to that, because nobody that’s involved in the case even worked there back then,” he said. “They did the right thing now, and all we can do is go forward.”

Blowers declined to comment on how the remains were discovered but said the department is essentially starting from step one in the investigation. He said there’s little documentation from the 1970s, a practice that doesn’t align with modern policing standards.

“We have probably less information than we would like looking into this case,” Blowers said.

Who is the woman and how did she die?

Once the bones were in the coroner’s possession, Russell said he began a deep dive into possible identification techniques. During his research he came across Othram.

The Texas-based company identifies human remains or suspects from crime scenes for law enforcement, said Michael Vogen, Othram’s director of account management. It developed a process called “forensic grade genome sequencing,” which he said examines hundreds of thousands of DNA markers to build a profile of a person.

“Ultimately, our goal in this case and others is to deliver investigative leads to law enforcement that they may not otherwise have had,” he said. “And generally, our analysis comes into play after they’ve exhausted all traditional investigative techniques, including traditional DNA testing.”

For a case like the one in Batavia, Vogen said they need a small portion of the skeletal remains — only about 1 or 2 inches of bone — in order to extract DNA. Sometimes they’ll do multiple extractions from the same piece of bone to get the “most useful” portion.

It’s then on to a “suitability analysis,” Vogen said, which involves checking for contamination or degradation from another human or animal. DNA from a crime scene or from bones lying outside usually aren’t pristine, he said, but a general rule is the cleaner the DNA, the better.

DNA will determine the sex of the bones, as well as biogeographic traits, such as ethnicity and race, Vogen said. These are important characteristics for police to know, Blowers said, since there’s discrepancies between the forensic anthropology report from the 1970s and a recent analysis.

For example, Blowers said while they’re fairly confident the remains are from a woman, they can’t “conclusively indicate” whether she was actually in her mid-20s at the time of death. Blowers added that even though it’s “extremely likely” the bones were in the house at the corner of Wilson and Van Buren streets for decades, DNA testing will help get more conclusive answers. The home was built in the later half of the 1800s.

Officials are still guessing what the woman’s cause of death might have been. Blowers said there were no signs of trauma. Russell, on the other hand, suspects it might be a homicide.

“When you find human remains in a wall, they got there somehow,” Russell said. “Right away your mind goes to the reasons why somebody would want to hide a body, so that’s what leads me to think right now it might be.”

The anthropologist from NIU quoted in the Batavia Chronicle theorized that someone might have dug up an old grave, and put the bones in the attic to save them. The bones may have then fallen through the floor into the walls.

Creating a family tree

Once they build a profile, genealogists attempt to “reverse engineer” their way to a direct family line, Vogen said. They create family trees using public records or through people submitting their DNA to check for family relationships, he said. Sometimes law enforcement will ask distant relatives questions such as where their grandparents are from or whether they’re aware of any adoptions in their family.

“Sometimes you get lucky and there’s a sibling relationship in there, or a first cousin, someone that may know this person that you’re looking for. In those cases they can resolve relatively quickly,” Vogen said. “And then at the other end of the spectrum, sometimes the closest you have is like a sixth cousin, and you’re going to take a lot of time to build out family trees.”

If the team is able to pass the suitability analysis step, Vogen said there’s a 98% chance they’ll be able to build a “good profile.” They usually find new leads for law enforcement, but Vogen said some cases take longer than others.

“As we get information, we’ll sit down with the cold case team, with the Batavia police and start brainstorming and just continue following the leads,” Russell said. “If we do all this work and we’re still at an undetermined death, who knows. But it’s definitely worth a shot.”

Since 1978, DNA technology has significantly evolved, Vogen noted. At that time, the Combined DNA Index System — a database of DNA profiles from convicted offenders, crime scene evidence and missing persons — didn’t exist.

Crowdfunding $7,500

Even though the coroner’s office had the money in its budget, Russell said it seemed appropriate that taxpayer dollars didn’t go toward the investigation since there isn’t an “immediate need.” If the case is a homicide, it’s likely that the perpetrator is long dead, he explained.

“It would be different if we found the skull outside that’s maybe a year or two old, then I would obviously pull all the stops out and use the proper resources because we’re looking at an active perpetrator,” Russell said.

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The $7,500 covers all costs of lab work and genealogy efforts — “from evidence to answers” — Vogen said. As of Sunday evening, they’ve raised almost $3,000, an amount Blowers called “encouraging.” He said he’s seen that there’s a lot of community interest in the case, which he believes will grow as more people hear about it.

“I think the community as well as the Police Department has an interest in just being able to tell the story,” Blowers said. “We’re hopeful that we can provide closure for a family of a missing person or whatever the circumstances may be behind this person’s remains ending up in the wall.”