The human skeleton stuck in the mud along the banks of the Rocky River took the three boys by surprise.
The year was 1975. They were hiking in the woods in Strongsville, Ohio, near Cleveland, when they found it there, as they would soon tell police. The skeleton was missing most of its flesh and part of its jaw. The boys couldn’t see it then, but it also had a small hole in its skull.
The wound came from a .25-caliber bullet, which fit “snugly” in the hole in the left temple, the Cuyahoga County coroner wrote in the 1975 autopsy report. The body appeared to belong to a white woman who was “about 20.” Little else was known about her, except that she died of homicide, the coroner ruled. Her name was “Unknown White Female Bones,” and because no one claimed her, she was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave in Potter’s Field at a Cleveland cemetery.
She would stay there for more than 40 years, all but forgotten except by her family — until seemingly out of nowhere, a 23-year-old college student working on a family genealogy research project came across Unknown White Female Bones in the cemetery index in 2014.
Christina Scates, the student, couldn’t believe how many unknown bones were in that cemetery index, she told The Washington Post, but what caught her eye about this case was the age. The unknown woman was just about her age at the time of her death, Scates said, and had been found about 20 minutes from where she lived. For the next several months, Scates couldn’t stop thinking about it.
“It was at the back of my mind nagging at me,” Scates said. “I thought I should do something.”
She started going to the library, scouring newspaper articles. She found the 1975 articles about the three boys hiking in the woods who found a woman who had been killed. But when she started cold-calling local police agencies asking about the status of the case, they didn’t know what she was talking about, she said.
Finally she found one person who did: Lt. Don Sylvis, a ranger for Cleveland Metroparks, which has jurisdiction over the location where the body was found. He sent her the entire case file, she said.
The 100-page file for “Strongsville Jane Doe” contained the names and dental records of missing girls across the country, whose teeth were compared with those of Unknown White Female Bones over the years. There was a young local actress, a young woman connected to the Hell’s Angels and even Patty Hearst, the granddaughter of publishing mogul William Randolph Hearst who was famously abducted in 1974. None of the girls were matches.
The name of the girl they were looking for was not in that file.
Scates got a half step closer to learning her name when she decided to upload all of her research to Reddit’s “Unresolved Mysteries” forum and on Websleuths.com, where the case caught the attention of Carl Koppelman, a forensic artist.
Koppelman, based in California, liked cross-referencing unidentified remains with unsolved missing-persons reports. Then he makes facial-reconstruction drawings using what he knows about the skulls. He was just a hobbyist. But authorities started to take him seriously when he helped crack a 36-year-old cold case out of Caledonia, N.Y., with an eerily accurate facial-reconstruction drawing he made of the missing girl.
Scates asked him to make a drawing for Strongsville Jane Doe. By then, it was June 2016.
“There was about five or six photos of this muddy skeleton,” Koppelman told The Post. “I looked at that for a couple of months. I thought, no, the angle’s wrong. There’s no mandible. No hair color. The front teeth are all missing. There’s no way I can do anything with this — but eventually I came along and said, ‘What the hell. I’ll give it a shot.’ ”
As Koppelman got to work, he had a phone call with the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner’s Office about a separate case he was interested in from the Cleveland area. During the call, he said, he talked to Anjanette Fischer, the office’s missing-persons liaison, about his latest project, the drawing for the Strongsville missing-girl case.
At that point, Fischer told The Post, she tried to look up the case in NamUs, a database sponsored by the National Institute of Justice designed to help people connect unidentified remains with missing persons. But she discovered it wasn’t in there.
“It fell deep into the depths of their computers,” Koppelman said. “It was like they had no idea the case existed.”
The drawing Koppelman ultimately made was stunning — but still, it was nameless.
That was all about to change. Thanks to Koppelman’s inquiry, Fischer said she promptly entered the Strongsville Jane Doe case into NamUs. And it ended up being a crucial development.
A few months later, a detective at the Akron Police Department’s missing-persons unit, Sgt. Jeff Smith, was assigned to work on cold cases. The oldest was that of Linda Pagano, according to the Akron Beacon Journal. Pagano had gone missing in September 1974 after leaving home following an argument with her stepfather, reportedly because she had gotten home late from a concert. The 17-year-old was never seen again.
At Fischer’s suggestion, Smith jumped on NamUs. He uploaded the Pagano missing-person report to see whether any unidentified remains from that time period seemed to match with her case.
And sure enough, there were: Strongsville Jane Doe. It looked to Smith like an immediate match.
“The totality told me there was a strong possibility it was her,” Smith told the Beacon Journal in an October story about the efforts of Scates, Koppelman and investigators.
Finally, after more than a year of continued investigation and more than 40 years after Pagano was buried in an unmarked grave, authorities announced July 12 that a DNA test confirmed the remains found on the Rocky River indeed belonged to Pagano.
Since Smith’s breakthrough in the case, authorities went looking for Pagano’s unmarked grave, exhumed her body, compared her dental records with the remains and asked her living family members to take DNA tests, said Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner Thomas Gilson. The DNA tests sealed the deal.
Gilson said the “big question” for investigators today was why authorities in 1975 didn’t realize the remains discovered on the banks of the Rocky River might have some connection to a girl who was reported missing five months earlier.
“One thing I will say, though, is that we never give up on trying to identify these folks,” he said.
The case has been handed over to Cleveland Metroparks as a homicide investigation — specifically to Sylvis, who first shared the case file with Scates.
At the news conference, Pagano’s brother, Michael Pagano, said that although it was a bittersweet discovery, it has at least brought the family closure. He said that Linda had been staying at her stepfather’s home only for the summer, for summer school, and that when she disappeared, nobody had any idea what could have happened.
“I figured I’d die wondering,” he said.