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The Bodies in Singing River


The grave digger drove west on interstate 10 through a chilly December drizzle. He slowed, peering at a figure laboring along the roadside. He wasn’t the only one to spot her. CB radio channels were abuzz that night—Friday the third—with truckers’ reports of a woman carrying what looked like a barefoot, coatless toddler in her arms, walking near the truck scales at the Alabama-Mississippi line.

The grave digger felt sorry for her. But in Pascagoula, Mississippi, in 1982, a black man simply didn’t invite a white woman into his vehicle, no matter how miserable the weather. Within days, a small body in a tiny casket would be buried under a donated, nameless stone, and the memory of that night would haunt him.

Shortly after sunrise on Sunday, December 5, a trucker crossing over one of the area’s many waterways on the Interstate stopped and called the police. He’d seen what he thought was a body floating in the murky water under a bridge.

The road from Biloxi to Mobile spans labyrinthine waterways that cut winding channels through ancient, moldering bottomland swamps en route to the river delta. All that stagnant water infuses the air with cloying odors of decay and rot that some find unnerving in a “what lies beneath” kind of way. Then there’s the Singing River. Legend has it that the last Native Americans from a tribe decimated by white settlers, war, and disease grasped hands and disappeared, their voices joined in a communal death choir, into the Pascagoula River. Some claim you can still hear the music, whispery at first but growing more distinct over time.

To a northerner used to water with finite boundaries, this landscape is unfamiliar, surreal, run through with tea-colored liquid that melts through solid earth. If you can’t trust land to be solid, what can you trust?

In 2011, working on a book about amateur sleuths, I traveled to Mississippi to meet Ellen Leach, a chain store cashier who, in her spare time, had become a one-woman volunteer detective agency, chasing down the identities of human remains that cropped up, nameless, within state lines.

It struck me as an unusual hobby, but Ellen was far from alone in pursuing it. In chat rooms and on blogs and websites such as Websleuths.com, the Doe Network, and Canyouidentifyme.org, I found a far-flung community immersed in the deaths of strangers. They mined esoteric details from the Internet, bandied about theories and possible names for death-ravaged faces, speculated whether this victim could be tied to that serial killer. I wanted to understand why, in the absence of financial reward or recognition, they did it.

Ellen had populated her own website, Mississippi Missing and Unidentified Persons (mmup.info), with dozens of local cases. One of the oldest and most mystifying was that of Delta Dawn, or, as some know her, Baby Jane.

I had studied the official case history: A sheriff’s deputy went to the area the truck driver mentioned, a bridge spanning the Escatawpa River, a tributary of the Pascagoula, but found no body. He decided to continue the search and, under another bridge several miles away, spotted a small blond child, clad in a checkered dress and a diaper, lying partially submerged and face up in the weeds.

The autopsy determined she was between eighteen and twenty-four months old, perhaps still alive when she hit the water, apparently thrown from the westbound side of the twin Interstate 10 causeways, which exceed forty feet at their highest point.

When the trucker tipped off police that night in 1982, Virgil L. Moore was a deputy in the Jackson County Sheriff’s department. “I think talking to Virgil would be good,” Ellen told me. In her fifties, Ellen was a one-time tomboy, a tall woman with a strong jaw and cleft chin, a wide, mobile mouth, and gray hair to her shoulders. That day she cut a mannish figure in jeans, zip-front fleece jacket, and black leather sneakers. “You could hear how they found her and everything they went through to try to identify her,” she said in an ex-smoker’s rasp as we drove over viaducts and past old-growth forests that were filled, I imagined, with writhing copperheads and leering, talon-branched trees out of Snow White. She paused. “Next year will be thirty years,” she said. “And she’s still unidentified.”

Moore, in his seventies and semi-retired, agreed to escort Ellen and me to the gravesite. “He is real country,” she warned as we neared the meeting spot.

Moore, square-jawed and balding like a grayer Jack Nicholson, in a navy blue sheriff’s uniform with Cool Hand Luke shades and a .40-caliber handgun strapped to his hip, met us at a service station just off the Interstate. With a nod to me and a wave to Ellen, he floored the accelerator and his silver Ford pickup shot off in a spray of gravel. He barely paused at a stop sign and then raced through a yellow light.

“OK, Virgil,” Ellen muttered as we weaved after him, cutting off other drivers, finally swerving into a driveway marked Jackson County Memorial Park. “Oh,” she sighed as Moore’s tires dug furrows into the grass near someone’s grave. Two cars waited for us at the burial site. “I wonder if it’s the investigators,” Ellen said. She had brought a camera—every time she visited the grave, she photographed the trinkets unknown people placed there that she believed might contain a clue to Delta Dawn’s identity. She kicked herself for forgetting her Mississippi Missing business cards. Like many web sleuths, Ellen cultivated relationships with law enforcement in the hope that they would drop her tidbits of information.

Two women with badges and holsters on their belts—detectives Linda Johnson and Hope Thornton—shook our hands. Ellen had alerted them that she’d be there with a writer. “Hey, darlin’,” Moore greeted his colleagues, his Mississippi drawl rough and throaty. “If you crack this case, Hope,” he said, “you’ll make national notoriety.”

He turned to me. “You come all the way from Boston for this?”

Moore related that after the child’s body was found, his wife asked him, “What are you all going to do with that little girl?”

“Well, if we don’t find someone to claim the body, we’ll put her in an unmarked grave. The county will bury her,” he said.

That did not sit well with Mary Ann Moore, mother of six. “Oh, no,” she told her husband. “I want her to have a Christian burial.”

The next day, Moore went to the sheriff and the lead detective. “Can me and my wife have that baby?” The Moores signed some papers, and the body was theirs. “Don’t you call her Jane Doe,” his wife scolded. Moore helped pay for a flat granite marker with a ceramic vase, inscribed “Baby Jane” in block letters and, below, “Known only to God.” A pastor offered to lead the services. Four deputies served as pallbearers. A local paper reported more than two hundred attendees. “A lot of females, mothers boo-hooing,” Moore recalled. “It was a beautiful funeral.”

Based on autopsy photos that still make Moore cringe, a forensic artist created a digital facial reconstruction. In it, the toddler is round-faced and pink-cheeked in a patterned blouse with a wide, lace-edged white collar tied in the center with a blue satin bow. Her blue eyes are wide and hopeful, her lips parted in a cherubic smile over a row of even, pearly baby teeth. Digitally manufactured light glints off her strawberry blond hair, which falls in charming curls around her small ears.

“She was purty,” Moore said. “She was a beautiful baby girl.” He hung an eight-by-ten framed copy of the reconstruction in his living room and waited for someone to find her name.

Because the child was discovered at daybreak in the river delta, Lynn Reuss called her Delta Dawn. A substitute school bus driver from Auburn, Alabama, Reuss was researching another perplexing local case—that of an Alabama boy who vanished in 1959—when she came across Baby Jane. In 2005, she convinced a local paper to revive the story. Marjorie Brinker, a retired office manager who lived in nearby Great Bay, saw it and got in touch. The two became friends, their relationship forged around the toddler.

In 2007, Lynn and Marjorie organized a graveside prayer vigil followed by a memorial service to mark a quarter century since the girl’s death. Ellen Leach drove to Pascagoula from her home in Gulfport. She, Lynn, and Marjorie gathered with the others around Baby Jane’s granite stone.

Ellen looked carefully at all the attendees, including a woman alone in a car. She guessed the woman was in her seventies, or perhaps younger but worn down by a hard life. “She sat right over there in her car during the whole thing, sat in her car and chain-smoked,” Ellen said. “An old lady who drives a Cadillac.”

At the church, the woman, dressed in a tasteful pantsuit, sat in a middle pew, hands fidgeting, and spoke to no one. Ellen watched her from the back. Lynn snapped a photo. They peered at the registry after she signed it. The name looked like Donna Hall, or perhaps Donna Hill.

“Curiosity got me on that. I think she knows something,” Ellen said. She passed along the information to law enforcement but if anyone followed up, they didn’t report back to her. She wishes now she had jotted down the woman’s license plate, maybe even tailed her.

Another time, a woman from Kentucky called Detective Thornton, saying she was sure Delta Dawn was her long-lost sister. “She said she remembers her daddy put her sister in the trunk of a car and she’d never seen her again,” Moore said. “She said her uncle was a truck driver from Florida,” perhaps one of the anonymous tipsters about the woman on foot, although the Kentucky woman had no idea who that woman might be.

The Kentucky woman drove to Pascagoula, and Moore raced to meet her at the cemetery. “I was so happy. I hugged that woman; she hugged me. She was crying.” The woman and a companion spent the night at Moore’s home. The next day Virgil and Marjorie took them to a Golden Corral restaurant. Marjorie handed over all the notes, photos, and articles on Baby Jane she had collected over the years. After tearful goodbyes, the woman headed back to Kentucky.

But Thornton found that the woman’s DNA didn’t match Baby Jane’s. “She up and swore it was her sister,” Marjorie said. “Virgil, bless his heart, believed it was, too.”

Just about everyone involved with the case is stymied. The truck driver who reported seeing a body under the bridge described an adult wearing blue jeans and a checkered shirt. That would match the description others gave of the woman walking on the Interstate, but her body was never found. “He never seen a baby body,” Moore pointed out. “And where that baby was couldn’t be seen anyway”—not from the road.

Bizarrely, divers dragging the river for the jeans-clad woman came upon the clothed skeleton of a young man with a gunshot wound to the head. Mississippi backwaters harbor surprising things: drums of toxic chemicals, water moccasin nests, skeletons. “Just luck,” was how the county coroner explained finding two unrelated bodies less than fifty feet apart in a spot being searched for a third.

Lynn Reuss is taunted by vivid dreams: in them, the woman is a runaway who, without her family’s knowledge, gives birth. She is fleeing something or someone, maybe an abusive partner. “Virgil said that the baby was partially smothered, possibly from being held too tightly. Maybe the mother thought her baby was dead” and, panicked, threw her over the bridge. “Did you know that the child had no food in her stomach, but appeared to be cared for? Another reason why I think the mom fled—no money, no blanket, no shoes or socks on the child, no coat or hat. If she had these things, they were lost somewhere along the way.”

For years, Lynn tried unsuccessfully to get Delta Dawn featured in the national media—she believes the digital reconstruction may jog someone’s long-dormant memory. “So many questions and no answers,” she wrote to me.

In 2008, a coroner in California contacted Hope Thornton. A family thought the digital composite of Delta Dawn looked like their missing daughter. The child’s mother’s boyfriend allegedly kidnapped and killed the child but never told authorities where he hid the remains, Thornton said.

Marjorie told me about an Alabama man who went by variations of the name Louis Lovie Riddle, incarcerated in Maine for another crime, who claimed he’d killed the baby and buried the mother in Alabama—and then recanted. “I don’t know if he was wacko or what,” she said.

Thornton hasn’t ruled out the truck driver. She drove to Florida to interview him when she inherited the case in 2008. “Even with age and time, there’s no way things can change as dramatically as his story has. He’s still a suspect in my book,” she told a reporter from the Mississippi Press, although she declined to say more because of the ongoing investigation.

“It gets in you and you can’t walk away from it,” Thornton told me that day at the gravesite. An investigator of crimes against children, she’s no stranger to the dark side of human nature. But clearly she finds this case particularly vexing, as do Lynn, Marjorie, Virgil, and others who thumb through the yellowing archives in the Pascagoula library, click on online details, or frequent Baby Jane’s grave.

Her story and so many others remain maddeningly unknowable. The National Institute of Justice estimates that some 40,000 bodies or cremated remains from the past few decades languish in coroners’ back rooms, morgues, and potters fields around the country. It’s as though the population of Wilkes-Barre or North Miami Beach were lost and mysteriously unaccounted for. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, coroners and medical examiners handle the bodies of about 4,000 unidentified dead, of whom more than 1,000 will remain nameless in a given year, their chances of being identified shrinking by the day.

Crowdsourcing the online resources adds human problem-solving to an intractable problem. As of 2014, Doe Network volunteers had solved or helped solve sixty-seven cases of lost identity; Ellen Leach alone solved several. A publicly accessible database, Namus.gov, launched in 2009 by the Department of Justice, is credited with aiding in more than two hundred fifty identifications.

Among the many unidentified dead, the lost children are the most gut-wrenching. Not only did adults in these children’s lives fail them; the system failed them. Often, no one seems more chagrined than the detectives who inherit sometimes decades-old cases. But the odds are stacked against them.

“She deserves a name and a birthday,” Thornton said of Baby Jane. “Every day is her birthday.”

In 2009, Virgil Moore watched the little girl’s remains exhumed for a DNA sample that investigators hoped—in vain, as it turned out—might tie her to a missing person. As the grave digger worked, he told Moore he’d never forgotten spotting the woman and child on I-10 that night. He’d always wondered if things might have turned out differently if he’d stopped.

Moore, whose wife died in 2000, hopes to have Baby Jane’s portrait recreated on weather-proof ceramic that he can affix to her headstone. If she had lived, she would be in her thirties, but to Virgil she will always be an angel child, trapped in time. “Nothing adds up right now,” he said. But then, little about the case ever added up. No matter how many ways I pieced together the sketchy facts, I couldn’t come up with a scenario that fit. But I had a newfound respect for those who refused to stop trying.

After getting back in our cars and trailing Virgil a mile or so from the cemetery to the church—deserted that day—where the funeral and memorial had been held, Ellen and I headed back toward Gulfport. We retraced our route over the bridge where the truck driver saw a body that no one ever found, along the stretch of highway where the grave digger almost stopped, and past the murky water where the singing Native Americans disappeared, leaving only their voices behind.

DEBORAH HALBER, G96, is the author of The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths Are Solving America’s Coldest Cases (Simon & Schuster), due out in July. Formerly a writer and editor at Tufts and MIT, she has also written for many magazines and newspapers.

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