When a teenage boy named Charles got off the school bus one day and decided to walk the rest of the way home via the scenic route through the woods, he thought he spotted a dying animal in the undergrowth near his house.
As Charles approached for a closer look one cold day in December near to Mason Road in Economy, Pennsylvania, he was shocked when he realized he was looking at…
As if finding a severed head in undergrowth in a deserted area wasn’t strange enough, what made the find even more bizarre was the fact that the skin on the woman’s head was still smooth and there were few signs of degradation. Her grey hair was perfectly curled, and two moles could be seen on her cheek. This human head defied logic and was meticulously preserved yet thoughtlessly discarded.
As Economy Borough Police Chief Michael O’Brien said, according to a Daily Beast report, “What’s bizarre is not that we’ve found a head,” he said. “It’s that we’ve found a head that’s embalmed.” Now the police were faced with a double whammy; who was this woman and where was her body?
Experts from different fields spent a year trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together and find out who this woman was before she was decapitated. She appeared to be in her late 60s and had waxy white skin, but the most curious thing about the head was that the woman’s eyes had been removed and replaced with small red rubber balls.
One thing the cops found interesting was that the dead woman had been professionally embalmed, most likely at a funeral home or a mortuary which meant she likely wasn’t murdered. Investigators assumed that an illegal intervention had taken place with her body on its way to the cemetery, but this couldn’t be proved.
Investigators initially checked to see whether any local graves had been desecrated. That came up empty, so detectives turned their attention to the eye sockets in the head. Some of the most highly-skilled forensic labs in the states tried to identify this woman’s DNA but to no avail as it had been compromised by the extensive embalming process.
Having come up with no answers, investigators approached medical schools who work with medical tissues to see if the head could be traced back to them. This also turned up nothing, and detectives found themselves back at square one. Now the police approached Michelle Vitali, a sculptor who was tasked with drawing an accurate picture of the dead woman.
During the day, Vitali was an art professor at Edinboro University in Pennsylvania. In her spare time, Vitali was an expert forensic artist who helped police departments around the world to solve mysteries like these. But even this expert was unable to find out the name or identity of the woman whose head was found.
While Vitali also hit a dead end, she explained that this case had become almost an obsession for her. “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,” she said.
Police chief O’Brien spoke about the sketch Vitali drew of the dead woman for the press to get help from the public. “Even though she’s rather recognizable, you can’t put her visage on the television,” he said. “So we have to find a more palatable way to present it to the public.”
Vitali drew some sketches, some of which attempted to paint the victim in her younger years, and they threw up some leads. But all of them were dead ends too, so Vitali went ahead and spent 40 hours molding 10 pounds of clay into a 3-D model of what she thinks the woman looked like.
Having produced a life-size clay model of the victim, Vitali told reporters: “I think it’s a pretty good likeness. … What they need now is for people to call with information. If she looks remotely like anyone you knew who passed away, call them.” However, no one called, and the victim remained unidentified.
Vitali said she feels haunted by this case as she tries desperately to do what she can to help identify this Jane Doe. “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,'” Vitali said. “She has a lot of good people working on her case. A resolution, I think it will be found.”
The first break in the case came when tests conducted by Salt Lake City-based IsoForensics found isotopes in the woman’s head proving she had spent her last seven months living between Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Maryland, and New York. Accordingly, forensic experts concluded that the victim most likely grew up in western Pennsylvania.
Another piece of the puzzle that was put in place when toxicology tests showed trace amounts of Lidocaine and Atropine suggesting the victim suffered a cardiac arrest at some point close to death. “It looks like she had medical treatment at some point in time,” O’Brien said.
According to Beaver County District Attorney Anthony Berosh, the severed head could be something to do with the booming black market on body parts. “There’s a black market on body parts, and that market is pretty extensive,” he said, according to Reuters. “It didn’t roll off a truck,” Berosh said. “It just didn’t happen that way.”
Many of the people involved with the case have been left dumbfounded by the lack of leads and solid information. As O’Brien said to reporters, “She’s on my mind 24 hours a day, just the fact that I’m not able to identify her,” he said. “There’s nobody that deserves to be found that way. “She needs to be identified so she can have her name put to her face.”
In the meantime, a local prosecutor speculated on how this Jane Doe died. He alleged that she might have had health problems and been in and out of nursing homes in the area, which would explain the various minerals in her system from across the states. But that still doesn’t answer how this poor woman ended up being decapitated.
One lead that investigators were excited about was a missing person named Tamara “Tammy” Porrin. Porrin went missing from central Pennsylvania in 1986, and the photos of her on a national missing-persons database bear a remarkable similarity to Jane Doe. Even Porrin’s brother Ernest agreed that the head looks very much like his sister. However, the connection between the skull and the Porrin family was never solidly established.
Another confounding factor for cops was the red rubber balls which had been used to replace the woman’s eyes. No one at the funeral homes nor the medical examiners had ever seen or heard of this method of embalming. This led many to conclude that the women may have been killed and then used as some part of a sick experiment at the hands of a very twisted person.
Even though investigators claimed they hadn’t given up on the case, the woman’s head was buried a year after it was discovered. The partial funeral took place at the Beaver Cemetery, overlooking the Ohio River. The woman was buried without a headstone for now, and if the mystery of her identity isn’t solved her epitaph will simply read: “Jane Doe. Found Dec. 12, 2014.”