Cold Case with Carol Vorel: 1976 murder of Jane Seneca Doe

Cold Case with Carol Vorel: 1976 murder of Jane Seneca Doe

The purpose of longtime C-U news reporter CAROL VOREL's podcast series — "Cold Cases" — is to shed light on unsolved crimes.

Anyone with information about the 1976 murder of JANE SENECA DOE in Grundy County — the name was decided on by authorities after their failure to identify the victim, whose body was discovered near the town of Seneca in north central Illinois — is urged to call Grundy County Deputy Coroner Brandon Johnson at 815-941-3359 or visit facebook.com/grundycountycoldcase

Do you have a Cold Case you’d like Vorel to chase? Email her at cvorel@news-gazette.media or call 217-351-5345.

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ABOVE: In November, Grundy County Coroner John Callahan and Deputy Coroner Brandon Johnson visited Jane Seneca Doe's unmarked grave at Braceville Gardner Cemetery, where they laid a wreath.

By CAROL VOREL

In 1976, when the body of a young woman was discovered along a rural road near Seneca in Grundy County, police had few tools to investigate the crime and make an identification.

When fingerprints didn't lead to a match — and dental records weren't pursued — the victim became known as Jane Seneca Doe (left: the latest sketch of what authorities think she looked like).

More than 40 years later, the mystery remains unsolved.

"It's always just bothered me," said John Callahan, who joined the Grundy County Coroner's Office first as chief deputy in 1994 and then as coroner since 1998, "knowing that we had someone unidentified and buried."

As recently as November, Callahan and Deputy Coroner Brandon Johnson visited Jane Seneca Doe's unmarked grave at Braceville Gardner Cemetery, where they laid a wreath.

One day, they hope to add a name to a headstone.

"I can't imagine when the day comes that we're able to face-to-face with the family," Callahan said. "To be able to look them in the eyes and say this is truly your relationship and be able to tell the immediate family that we have identified their loved one."

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On Oct. 2, 1976, a farmer found the body of a black woman in a grassy patch along U.S. 6 near Seneca (left), not far from Interstate 80 and roughly halfway between LaSalle-Peru and Joliet.

"She was shot in the back of the head and had a multi-colored red, black and white sweater wrapped around her head along with a plastic bag and electrical tape taped to that," Johnson said. "Her head was all wrapped up.

"The few leads at the time didn't pan out," he added. "It's not clear when the case went cold."

The then-coroner bought a plot at the cemetery where Jane Seneca Doe was buried as an indigent on Thanksgiving Day.

"Only a few people were in attendance: the coroner, a cemetery worker and one other person," Johnson said. "Just a somber quiet burial."

Callahan said he was frustrated over the years due to the limitations in his office.

"I had actually opened it up a few times over the years, but unfortunately, I didn't have the help that I have today," he said. "I just didn't have the resources to continue with the daily calls and open this up as well."

The addition of Johnson and other staff members, however, have given Callahan renewed hope. The case was re-opened in the fall of 2017.

"It's going to feel amazing to solve this," Johnson said, "and to answer families and give them the answers that they need after all these years wondering where their loved one has been.

"It's just mind-boggling how nobody could be missing anyone," he added. "It's someone to somebody, whether it's a friend, a sister, a daughter, a cousin. Somebody's missing someone."

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Johnson (below: at state police headquarters in Pontiac) delved into the case history, taking advantage of advancements in technology — as well as social media — to share photos, sketches and pertinent information to missing-person organizations and media outlets. The effort brought in 15 inquiries — three of which are still active.

But the lack of evidence, body tissue and bones from the initial investigation limited what the coroner's office could do to identify her. DNA profiling and ancestry matches were off the table.

In December of 2018, however, the coroner's office exhumed the body.

"Exhumation provided our office to have access to the unidentified victim's remains. We now had all of her bones to work with, as well as her hair," Johnson said.

The bones were sent to the Center for Human Identification at the University of North Texas for a DNA profile.

"I hope they come up with something good for us," he said.

When the DNA profile is finished, it will be used to search various databases for a match to finally lead to an identification, including an ancestry match.

"The biggest thing out there now is taking the DNA and go into the genealogy section of the world," Callahan said.

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ID aside, Callahan is quick to remind that Jane Seneca Doe is a victim of murder.

He said anyone with information should call his office at 815-941-3359 or visit facebook.com/grundycountycoldcase.

"I just ask that no matter how small you think your piece of information may be, it could be the ginormous step we're looking for," he said. "If somebody recalls they had a relative that went missing in that time frame or if you have a felon out there who was maybe incarcerated somewhere along the line and overheard a conversation of someone dumping a body."

Jane Seneca Doe was between the ages of 15 and 27 at the time of her death. She was believed to be 5-foot-7 and about 150 pounds, with black hair. Johnson said it's not clear if the sweater found around her head belonged to her (left: the initial handwritten report after her body was discovered).

"From a personal aspect, it would be the most satisfying part of my career to be able to solve this, and I love what I do," Callahan said. "But it would be truly the icing on the cake to be able to solve this. It would be tremendous."

A map of the area is below:

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