The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A teen vanished 30 years ago. Now her body has been identified.

Margaret Ann Sniegowski smiles alongside her family's dog in this photograph taken during her teenage years. (Courtesy of Lenny Sniegowski) (Family photo)
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Moments after Lenny Sniegowski arrived at home for a quick visit to see his family in Toledo, his parents told him that his 17-year-old sister, Margaret Ann, had not been seen for days. The youngest of eight children, Maggie — as she was known to family members and friends — had watched her older siblings leave home at 18 or 19, and her parents initially thought she might have decided to jump-start her adult life, Sniegowski recalled.

But now days later, they were worried.

So that day in 1992, with no leads from Maggie’s friends or the police, then-19-year-old Lenny Sniegowski searched his sister’s messy bedroom in their family home on Wychwood Street, looking for clues. It didn’t appear that she had packed a bag, which made him even more nervous, he said. He drove around the high school and other areas where she liked to hang out. At one point, he even started checking dumpsters.

“We didn’t know what else to do. What else can you do?” he said in a phone interview with The Washington Post.

The Sniegowskis felt that pang for decades. But after 30 years, Maggie’s family finally has some closure.

More than 200 miles away in Indiana, authorities announced earlier this week that they have discovered through DNA evidence that a Jane Doe found dead in May 1992 along a highway in Boone County, Ind., is Margaret Ann Sniegowski.

“It was this painful confirmation of my worst thoughts,” Sniegowski said about the moment when investigators gave him the news. Sniegowski, 49, who now lives in the Dallas area, said he has just started to mourn his little sister, “because although I’ve missed her tremendously, I had never really started mourning her.”

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It was a Sunday in the spring of 1992 when a local farmer found a young woman facedown in a soggy ditch near the entrance ramp from Indiana State Road 47, wearing only a light green tank top and anklet socks, according to local and federal authorities. An FBI poster noted that she was about 5 feet 6 inches tall, weighed 130 pounds and was estimated to be between the ages of 17 and 22. She had a tattoo that read “MOM” on her right arm, another one of a cross, and the word “LOVE” on her chest, according to the poster.

Months after the investigation began, the case turned cold and she was buried in a pauper’s grave outside the Boone County Sheriff’s Office.

But the Jane Doe was never forgotten. In 1993, her body was exhumed to extract DNA to help determine her age and to send her skull to Michigan State University, where experts were using technology to reconstruct facial features. Images of the resulting sculpture were distributed through the news media in the hope that the public could help investigators identify her, but nothing came of it, the authorities said.

When Boone County Sheriff Michael Nielsen took office in 2015, he decided to make the case a top priority, he said.

The body was exhumed again and the skeletal remains were sent to a team from the Archeology & Forensics Laboratory at the University of Indianapolis to gain more information and use it to renew public interest, he said.

In 2020, investigators tried once again — this time, sending the DNA to a group that used genealogy to help identity human remains. By the end of the following year, a potential match had been identified through an ancestry database, “and that really opened up everything,” Nielsen said.

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Maggie’s family had no idea police in another state had been on the case — and that it was about to change their lives.

Sniegowski said Maggie’s disappearance had always haunted them.

He said their father had died several years after Maggie went missing and their mother had remained bitter until her own death, perhaps half hoping that Maggie had left her family on purpose and half scared that she hadn’t.

Sniegowski said he and his late brother Mark soon came to their own conclusion that Maggie was most likely dead. But, he said, they struggled to wrap their minds around how a fierce, strong young woman could been victimized.

“She wasn’t an introvert who was just going to get snatched by some guy in a van. She would have clawed somebody’s eyes out. That’s just the way she was. She was tough,” he explained.

In high school, Maggie was a spitfire — she was pretty, popular and funny, her brother said. She once tried out for the boy’s wrestling team, “and I think she would have made it other than the problems it was causing in the school at the time. I think the administration put a kibosh to it,” he said.

She had also mastered the role of a little sister. She was a freshman when he was a senior, and he said he remembers how she used to embarrass him, running up to him in the hallways and hugging him in front of his friends.

“What I wouldn’t do now to get that hug,” he said.

In January of this year, Sniegowski said he was finishing work one evening when a sheriff knocked on the door. “I’m thinking, ‘Oh, my God, I don’t know what I did, but he caught me,’ ” he said.

It was Nielsen, coming to tell him that, after all these years, they thought they had identified Maggie’s body.

Nielsen and a lieutenant took a DNA sample from Sniegowski, while another team was in Toledo taking a sample from another sister to confirm the match.

Sniegowski said the sheriff asked if he had a photo of Maggie to compare it with several renderings. “I gave them a picture, and he started crying, that big mountain of a guy,” he said of Nielsen.

Nielsen said it was “a pretty amazing moment to be able to provide that closure” for Sniegowski and his family.

Maggie’s death, which is considered a homicide, is still under investigation. Nielsen said investigators are now trying to determine how she died and who was responsible for her death.

He said authorities will keep Maggie’s body during the homicide investigation but then will return her to her family.

When that day comes, Sniegowski said, it will be “a breakdown moment for all of us.”

He said the family plans to cremate Maggie’s remains and bury her in Toledo with another sister who died too young.

“We’ll lay her to rest there — and we’ll finally know where she’s at,” Sniegowski said.

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