Grundy County Cold Case Remains Identified After 47 Years

After more than 47 years, the remains of a young Black woman found near Seneca, Illinois have been identified as JoAnn “Vickie” Smith of Ohio by a dedicated team of volunteer investigative genetic genealogists with the DNA Doe Project.

Investigators on the scene in 1976 quickly ran out of leads to the identity of the Jane Doe found in a ditch alongside US Highway 6. They knew she had been shot in the head, and knowing her name was an important first step in solving her murder. After two months of searching, she was buried in an unmarked grave, but her case was far from closed.

In late 2017, the Grundy County Coroner’s Office reopened the cold case, in the hopes of using modern day DNA and forensics. On December 18, 2018, Jane Doe was subsequently exhumed from her unmarked resting place of forty-two years. With the assistance of NamUs, remains were sent to the University of North Texas Center For Human Identification in Fort Worth, TX. DNA was then developed and entered into CODIS, a national DNA database, which yielded negative results.

Deputy Chief Brandon Johnson of the Grundy County Coroner’s Office connected with the DNA Doe Project to try a newly developed technique to find her identity. DNA Doe Project deploys teams of expert volunteer investigative genetic genealogists who analyze the relative matches to the unknown person’s DNA to build a family tree. It would take four and a half years of dedicated work to narrow the search to the right branch of Vickie Smith’s tree and find her name.

“At some point everyone worked on this case,” said Margaret Press, who founded the DNA Doe Project in 2017. “She has been at the top of my list of cases I wanted to see identified.”

In fact, the list of volunteers who have worked on this case reads like a Who’s Who of DNA Doe Project leadership, including more than 20 expert genetic genealogists and all of the original volunteer cohort. Their work resolves one of DNA Doe Project’s oldest and most intractable active cases.

African-American Jane and John Does are often much more difficult to identify than people of Northern European descent because African-Americans are underrepresented in the public databases that allow law enforcement cases like this. This case was further complicated by the fact that Vickie had been adopted. Her DNA profile matched to a number of her distant biological relatives, but most people in her birth family didn’t know she existed. Her name was finally found after the team located a branch of her tree with three sisters, one of whom was her birth mother. With the assistance of Cincinnati Health Department Vital Records, Johnson located her original birth certificate. After extensive searches, Johnson requested assistance from the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation and subsequently adoption records were located by the Hamilton County Probate Court based on the lead provided by the DNA Doe Project team.

“The team really thought that she would be identified last summer once her grandparents had been identified,” said Eric Hendershott, team leader on the case. “However, it was only after contact was made with her biological family that adoption was suspected.”

In addition to DNA work on this case, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) also supported the case, providing resources, a facial reconstruction, and publicity in the hopes that she would be recognized. NCMEC kept her face and story in the public eye, contributing to numerous press articles over the years.

“A lot of people worked to keep this young woman’s story alive for 47 years so that she could get her name back and give her family some answers about her disappearance,” said Pam Lauritzen, Executive Director of Media and Communications with the DNA Doe Project. “It is an honor for all of us to say her name – Vickie Smith – and to know she’s on her way home.”

The DNA Doe Project is grateful to the groups and individuals who helped resolve this case: Brandon Johnson of the Grundy County Coroner’s Office, who entrusted the case to the DNA Doe Project; DNA Solutions for extraction of DNA; HudsonAlpha Discovery for sequencing; Greg Magoon for bioinformatics; GEDmatch Pro and FTDNA for providing their databases; the team at NCMEC for bringing so much attention to the case; our generous donors who joined our mission and contributed to this case; and DDP’s dedicated teams of volunteer investigative genetic genealogists who work tirelessly to bring all our Jane and John Does home.

DNA Doe Project/Grundy County Coroner Joint Press Release