Even in a small town like Economy, Pa., police had seen their fair share of decomposed corpses. There were the solitary seniors who died at home alone, the hikers who disappeared on the trail, the vagrants who vanished and were found dead later.
But this was different. The head defied logic. It had been carefully preserved yet carelessly discarded.
“What’s bizarre is not that we’ve found a head,” said Economy Borough Police Chief Michael O’Brien. “It’s that we’ve found a head that’s embalmed.”
The story of the severed, embalmed head is beyond bizarre. Most of the time, police must determine how someone died and whether foul play was involved. In the case of the head, though, police were staring at a double mystery.
Who was this woman? And where is her body?
“Nobody has ever heard of anything like this,” O’Brien told the Associated Press on Dec. 17, 2014, five days after the head’s discovery.
A year later, authorities have learned a lot about the body-less woman. A dedicated team of detectives, scientists and artists have used increasingly elaborate techniques to trace an outline of her enigmatic life and curious death. But key pieces of the forensic puzzle are still missing.
Death, it turns out, isn’t ready to part with some of its secrets.
A grim discovery
The mystery began Dec. 12, 2014, the day a teenager stumbled upon the severed head while walking home through the woods.
The head lay on its side like a ruined Roman statue, roughly 30 feet from the edge of a country road. The woman appeared to be in her 60s, with the waxy skin and carefully curled hair of someone in an open casket, not the open countryside. There was no sign of the rest of the body, nor any indication of how the head got there.
But there was something else curious about the partial corpse: her eyes.
Underneath her eyelids — held closed by plastic caps — there were no eyeballs. Instead, rubber pellets filled the sockets.
The grisly detail wasn’t much, but it was a starting point.
Authorities quickly deduced that the dead woman had been professionally embalmed at a funeral home or mortuary, which meant she probably wasn’t murdered. Instead, investigators suspected that someone had illegally “intervened” as her body was on its way to the cemetery. And judging by the way the head was removed, that person must have had “some anatomical knowledge.”
“That’s the person we’re looking for,” Beaver County District Attorney Anthony Berosh told the Beaver County Times.
A determined, but increasingly desperate, search
In their attempt to unravel the mystery of the severed head, investigators first checked to see whether any local graves had been desecrated. When that came up empty, they launched a series of tests to coax more information from the corpse. The goal wasn’t just to close the case but to return a name — and dignity — to a dead woman.
“We have to have the key to the door, and the key is identification,” Berosh told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “All roads lead to the identification of that person.”
They began with the eyes.
The rubber pellets suggested that at least part of the woman’s eyes had been removed for transplantation or medical research, so investigators started by trying to track down organ donors. But a DNA database of donors didn’t exist, and organ donation organizations couldn’t share their information with investigators because of privacy restrictions, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported.
Even if an organ donor database existed, investigators faced another problem: The embalming process had compromised the woman’s DNA, O’Brien told the Beaver County Times.
Several of the most highly skilled forensic labs in the country offered to help, but the little DNA that could be salvaged didn’t match any on record in a number of national databases — probably because the woman’s family never knew her head was missing.
Other scientific avenues also came up as dead-ends. The woman had a full set of teeth, but dental records proved just as unhelpful as DNA — investigators had nothing to compare them with.
Investigators also tried asking medical schools and agencies receiving medical tissue for help, but they ran into problems with that, too. First, they were shocked to learn just how many dead bodies were in use, including in crash-test simulations, military training and NASA simulations.
“The number of people needing cadavers grossly exceeded anything in our wildest imagination,” Berosh told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in June. Agencies accepting the eyes for research, meanwhile, don’t usually photograph the donor’s face or test for DNA. When occasional leads did come in, they were quickly discarded because they didn’t match the dental records.
Investigators grew desperate. “We all feel here not only a legal obligation but a moral obligation” to solve the mystery, Berosh told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review shortly after the head’s discovery.
“I think this case has compelled people,” he told the Beaver County Times a year later. “I’ve heard over and over again that’s somebody’s mother, that’s somebody’s aunt, that’s somebody’s friend.”
Sculptor of the dead
Michelle Vitali calls herself “the Hail Mary pass” for struggling police departments. But Vitali isn’t an officer or a private eye or even a scientist.
She’s a sculptor.
By day, Vitali is an art professor at Edinboro University in Pennsylvania. By night, she is a forensic artist, helping to solve vexing mysteries around the world, from civil war battlefields to medieval graveyards in Europe.
When authorities began investigating the severed head case more than a year ago, they asked for her help. Vitali quickly crafted a sketch of the dead woman that police hoped would crack open the case.
Like investigators, though, Vitali has had to try a variety of methods to identify the woman as leads dried up. At times, the case has nearly become an obsession.
“I feel like I have an attachment to this one,” she told the Beaver County Times. “I really want to see it resolved. … I just really want to know her name.”
Vitali began her career as a painter but “always had one foot in the sciences,” teaching human anatomy and scientific illustration classes, she told the Times. She also married a police officer. Those two things led her to her an unlikely second job: drawing the dead.
O’Brien, the Economy police chief, contacted her shortly after the discovery of the severed head. Vitali produced a sketch of the dead woman that could be shown in newspapers and on television.
“Even though she’s rather recognizable, you can’t put her visage on the television,” Vitali said of her macabre model. “So we have to find a more palatable way to present it to the public.”
The sketch led to several tips, but each time, the potential match was ruled out because of dental records.
When the tips dried up in February, Vitali tried sketching younger versions of the woman in the hopes that a family member or friend would recognize her and come forward.
“The youthful version could be helpful,” Vitali told the Erie Times-News. “A lot of us move a lot. People can know us at different times.”
She got to know the dead woman better than perhaps anyone.
“She had one brow that went up a lot in life,” Vitali told the Times-News.
When even those youthful sketches failed, Vitali spent 40 hours molding 10 pounds of clay into a 3-D model of what she thinks the woman looked like.
It’s a last-ditch effort for identification, Vitali said.
“I think it’s a pretty good likeness,” she told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in February. “What they need now is for people to call with information. If she looks remotely like anyone you knew who passed away, call them.”
But nobody did.
Having spent days drawing or sculpting the woman, only to fail to identify her, Vitali is now haunted by the case.
“It’s something to have somebody, to look her right in the face, to hold her head in your hands and say, ‘I really hope we’re able to resolve this for you, to find out what happened,'” she told the Beaver County Times.
“She has a lot of good people working on her case. A resolution, I think it will be found. I think it will be found. I think there’s just a lot of monkey wrenches thrown into this one, so to speak,” Vitali added. “I’m hopeful, and I think about her a lot.”
With time running out before authorities had to bury the woman, investigators sent the remains off for one more round of tests in another attempt to identify her.
On Monday, authorities announced the results.
For the first time, a story began to form behind the mysterious face.
According to tests conducted by Salt Lake City-based IsoForensics, isotopes in the woman’s remains showed that she had spent her last seven months moving between Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Maryland and New York. Based on the results, the woman probably grew up in Western Pennsylvania, south of Beaver County, O’Brien announced during a news conference Monday morning.
Toxicology tests also showed trace amounts of Lidocaine and Atropine in her body, suggesting that she suffered from a cardiac ailment and may have died from it, O’Brien said.
“It looks like she had medical treatment at some point in time,” Berosh said, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “It’s a common practice here in Western Pennsylvania for various members of the family to take particularly a mother or a grandmother into the home for a period of time. That could explain why we have such a large geographical area.”
Berosh also announced that the severed head could be the result of a booming black market in body parts.
“There’s a black market on body parts, and that market is pretty extensive,” he said, according to Reuters. Authorities added that the head was discovered too far from the road to have ended up there accidentally and that embalming fluid meant animals wouldn’t have touched it.
“It didn’t roll off a truck,” Berosh said. “It just didn’t happen that way.”
Investigators said they hadn’t given up on the case, even though the woman’s remains were buried Saturday, the one-year anniversary of the discovery in the woods outside Economy.
The funeral took place at the Beaver Cemetery, overlooking the Ohio River.
Among those in attendance was Vitali, the artist who has drawn the dead woman’s face dozens of times.
The woman was buried without a headstone for now. If the mystery isn’t solved by spring, her epitaph will read: “Jane Doe. Found Dec. 12, 2014.”
“She’s on my mind 24 hours a day, just the fact that I’m not able to identify her,” O’Brien told the Beaver County Times earlier this month. “There’s nobody that deserves to be found that way.
“She needs to be identified,” he added, “so she can have her name put to her face.”
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