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Selected articles from my journalism career, with topics ranging from heavy metal to cold cases to samurai armor.

Former chief, genealogist continue trying to solve state’s oldest Jane Doe case

Despite the best of intentions, anniversaries often slip one’s mind, with the cares and concerns of everyday life taking precedence.

There is one anniversary that former Bedford Police Chief David C. Bailey will never forget, in part because he is reminded of it in his daily routines.

The date in question is Oct. 6, 1971, when the body of a woman in her 30s was discovered in the woods near what is now the Kilton Road exit and onramp on Route 101 West.

“I think of it every time I drive up that ramp,” Bailey said.

Although Bailey had been a police officer for less than six months when the Jane Doe was found, his memories of visiting the site remain vivid. It had been a very hot September, which speeded the decomposition of the body.

“When I look at those pictures, I can still smell it,” Bailey said of the photographs of the crime scene. “I’ll never forget that smell.”

Though he was not a main investigator in the case, Bailey said he followed its progress. Forty-one years later and into his retirement, it continues to hold his attention.

“It’s one of the two cases that until I make some progress on, I won’t consider myself actively retired,” he said, noting that he still works as a special police officer.

The driving force behind his focus on the oldest Jane Doe case in the state, Bailey said, is forensic genealogist and Bedford resident Melinde Byrne.

Byrne began working on the case in November 2008, when she was asked to teach a class on forensic genealogy at Boston University.

Forensic genealogy, she said, is “the study of kinship and identity as it pertains to the law.”

Byrne selected three cases to present to her students, one of which she wanted to be an unresolved case. She chose the Bedford Jane Doe because, living a few miles away from where the body was discovered, it literally hit close to home.

Byrne said she was horrified that this woman “could vanish and no one could come forward to claim her.”

The next step, she said, was contacting Bailey, who was Bedford’s police chief at the time, to obtain additional information and to offer her assistance as a forensic genealogist.

“It took me months, literally, to approach Chief Bailey,” Byrne said, explaining that she wanted to be particularly respectful since she wasn’t affiliated with the law enforcement or military communities.

Given how well her partnership with Bailey has worked out, she said, “I must have done something right.”

Since teaching her first forensic genealogy class in 2008, Byrne has presented the mystery of the Bedford Jane Doe to about 500 students. She will share the case with a new class in November.

“The students come up with something new every time,” she said.

There are many fascinating details that can’t be revealed publicly without jeopardizing the outcome of the case, she said, and they have a good amount of information to go on.

Because they do not have a good sample of Jane Doe’s DNA just yet, much of the investigatory work they have done so far depends upon reverse engineering, Byrne explained.

“The most common use of forensic genealogy is to locate missing heirs to estates,” she said. “These are cases where you know somebody’s name and you determine who that name actually belongs to.”

In other cases, “you may not know the person’s last name, but you know what their place in a kinship group is,” Byrne said. “It’s sort of like an algebra problem. You know two pieces of the formula, and you get the answer by using those two pieces.”

Since at this time, Jane Doe lacks both a family name and a designated place in a kinship group, the equation is more challenging.

“What I’m trying to reverse-engineer is sort of like the dog that didn’t bark in the night,” Byrne said. “I’m going to use the clues we have in a different way.”

One example Byrne was able to discuss was Jane Doe’s clothing.

“There are a lot of things that point to Canada as an origin,” she said. “She’s wearing a Wonderbra, which was not sold in the United States in 1971. She also has Gossard panties on.”

Then, there are the heels on Jane Doe’s sandals, Byrne noted, the height of which is marked in centimeters.

Byrne cautioned against using Jane Doe’s clothing as the entire basis for her place of origin, as the woman could have borrowed the clothing from someone else or gone shopping in Canada. Such clues, however, can provide a jumping-off point for further investigation.

Another important piece of the equation is why Jane Doe was never reported missing.

“There’s a whole series of obligations,” Byrne said, from personal and work relationships to missed medical or dental appointments, that would result in someone knowing if a person had gone missing.

“It is a pretty baffling dead-end kind of thing,” she said of the case, noting that being able to narrow it down geographically will help their progress.

At this time, Bailey said, the Bedford Police Department does not have an active investigation on the Jane Doe case.

“You go by solvability,” he said of cold cases. “They review them on occasion,” and if additional information surfaces regarding a case, they’ll work on it.

In the meantime, Bailey and Byrne will continue to dig, hoping to find a new interpretation of a clue or a new connection that will lead them closer to the identity of Jane Doe.

The nature of her demise is not the main focus here, Bailey explained.

“This is about giving this person closure,” he said. “It just boggles the mind that no one knows who she is.”

– Teresa Santoski

Originally published Sept. 28, 2012 in the Bedford (NH) Journal.

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