The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

An unidentified child found dead in 1960 was dubbed ‘Little Miss Nobody.’ Authorities now know her name.

Lt. Tom Boelts of the Yavapai County Sheriff's Office speaks about the identification of “Little Miss Nobody” in Prescott, Ariz., on March 15. (Doug Cook/Daily Courier/AP)

A schoolteacher was on a walk in an Arizona desert in July 1960, surveying the ground for noteworthy rocks, when he made a startling discovery: the remains of a little girl.

Decomposed and partially buried in the sandy terrain lay a small figure dressed in white shorts, a checkered blouse and adult-sized flip-flops that had been cut to fit her small feet, authorities said. Her fingernails and toenails were painted red.

Detectives called to the scene believed she was around 7 years old. They named her “Little Miss Nobody.”

Now, 61 years after sheriff’s deputies in Yavapai County, Ariz., north of Phoenix, found the little girl, law enforcement officials announced Tuesday that they have identified her through DNA analysis. Her name is Sharon Lee Gallegos, and she was kidnapped at 4 years old near her home in New Mexico.

“We’re honored to be here today to give this little girl her name back,” a representative from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children said at a news conference.

A young girl’s murder went unsolved for nearly 58 years. A 20-year-old college student helped crack the case.

On July 21, 1960, 10 days before the little girl was found dead in Arizona, Gallegos was playing with two other children in an alley near her family’s home in Alamogordo, N.M., when a “dirty, old green car” drove up to her, according to a report from the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System. A woman asked Gallegos to get into the car, offering to buy her clothes and candy. But when the little girl refused, the stranger “grabbed her arm and dragged her into the car,” the report says. The woman and her male companion had allegedly been stalking Gallegos for a week.

One of the witnesses of the kidnapping who had been outside playing with Gallegos told law enforcement that he saw two children in the car, including a “freckle-faced little boy,” Lt. Tom Boelts said at the news conference.

The FBI joined the Alamogordo Police Department in the search for Gallegos, and when investigators learned of a little girl’s remains being found in Sand Creek Wash, near Congress, Ariz., they reached out, suspecting a connection, according to the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office. But unsophisticated science and forensic analysis led law enforcement to rule out Gallegos as the girl found in Arizona. Arizona detectives believed the girl who was found dead was around 7 years old, and footprint comparisons, along with descriptions of the two girls’ clothes, did not match up, Boelts said at the news conference.

Both cases went cold. In the meantime, community members in Prescott, Ariz., raised money to bury the unidentified girl, Boelts said. Her headstone read “Little Miss Nobody” and was inscribed with the Bible verse “Blessed are the pure in heart.”

The case resurfaced in 2014, when it caught the attention of detectives working on an unrelated case in Colorado. The following year, the remains of the little girl were exhumed so investigators could extract DNA. In 2017, the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office sent the remains to a lab in Texas, which produced an image reconstructing the little girl’s face. In 2018, the sheriff’s office released the image to the public in hopes someone might recognize her.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children also shared the image on Facebook and a database for missing children, according to the organization. Later that year, the nonprofit received a tip that the girl might be Gallegos. But DNA tests from Gallegos’s family were inconclusive.

Meanwhile, investigators with the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office continued to look for leads, relying on old newspaper clippings to reconstruct the case, since police and FBI records were gone.

A plane spotted his ‘SOS’ and saved him in 1982. It was the same night he killed two women, police now say.

In 2021, the sheriff’s office raised money to send the DNA to Othram, a Texas-based a genome-sequencing lab specializing in assisting with cold cases. Last month, using DNA from a family member, the lab positively identified Gallegos as “Little Miss Nobody.” The discovery marks the oldest cold case solved for both the sheriff’s office and the missing children’s organization.

“The unidentified little girl who won the hearts of Yavapai County in 1960 and who occupied the minds and time of YCSO and partners for 62 years, will now rightfully be given her name back and will no longer need to be referred to as Little Miss Nobody,” the sheriff’s office said in a Facebook post.

The sheriff’s office said it is continuing to investigate who kidnapped Gallegos and uncover what happened during the 10 days between when she was abducted and when her body was found.

“There is a lot of work that is still yet to be done,” Boelts said. “This is the first step.”

Gallegos’s nephew Ray Chavez, who was born five years after she went missing, said at the news conference that his family described his aunt as a “feisty” and “jovial” child who enjoyed playing with her cousins. He added that the kidnapping shaped his own upbringing, with his mother, Gallegos’s sister, being very protective.

“Unfortunately, my mom and my grandmother aren’t here anymore,” Chavez said. “But … I wanted to be here to thank everybody, to thank the sheriff’s office for relentlessly not giving this up. … It’s amazing the work that you did for our family to be at peace.”