EATON — Forensic scientists and Shelby, Ohio law enforcement are seeking the public’s help in identifying a woman whose bones were discovered in Preble County five decades ago.
On May 25, 1968, a human skull was found in a flooded creek bed in Eaton. A few hours later, additional bones were discovered, badly decomposed; it’s believed the remains may have been washed out of a shallow grave by flooding, as local cemeteries were checked and the graves there found to be undisturbed.
The bones were determined to be those of a white woman, between 30 and 50 years of age, standing between 5’2” and 5’6” and weighing 130-140 lbs. No clothing or jewelry was found with the remains. The woman is believed to have died 10 to 15 years prior to discovery.
The remains were buried in Mound Hill Cemetery, then exhumed in Aug. 2019 after Detective Adam Turner of the Shelby Police Department learned of the unidentified woman while investigating the case of a missing person: Mary Jane Croft VanGilder, a 33-year-old mother from West Virginia last seen in 1945.
Kaycee Connelly, a genetic genealogist working with Massachusetts-based Redgrave Research Forensic Services, reached out to The Register-Herald after visiting Eaton in connection with the woman, dubbed Penny Doe’s, exhumation.
“From New Orleans to North Carolina, Alabama, New Jersey – we’re all over the place,” Connelly said of Redgrave, which also helped uncover the identities of murdered Kansas City infant Alisha Heinrich and Calvin Hoover, the killer of a nine-year-old Canadian girl named Christine Jessop.
DNA extracted from Penny’s bones will be sequenced out by a number of different labs, according to Connelly, hopefully resulting in a genetic profile within the next couple of months that could lead to her finally being identified via genetic genealogy, a process by which DNA can be compared to that of relatives of known missing persons, as well as against profiles submitted to genealogy websites like MyHeritage and Ancestry.com.
But, that process costs money.
“We basically put a cry out to the public saying, ‘We need help,’” Connelly said. About $1,700 of the Penny Doe GoFundMe campaign’s $5,500 goal has been raised as of Sunday, May 17.
Connelly spoke briefly about the inability of local authorities to identify Penny in 1968, or to locate VanGilder over 20 years prior.
“1968 was a different time – we didn’t have the internet, we didn’t have phones. And when individuals would go and try to report their loved ones missing, they weren’t necessarily taken a hundred percent seriously,” Connelly said. “An official report may not have been filed. And it’s not the family’s fault; it’s just that it was lost in the process somewhere.”
Turner and Redgrave are also searching for bones discovered in ‘68, including the skull and a bifid rib, which apparently were not buried with the rest of the remains.
“We’re reaching out to different educational entities to see if those pieces could have wound up in their collections,” Connelly said, indicating that a school could have come into possession of the bones without even knowing where they originated.
“The possibilities are endless,” Connelly said.
A Missing Mother
Originally from Fairmont, WV, Mary Jane Croft VanGilder moved to Plymouth, Ohio and worked in Shelby. While VanGilder was in Ohio, she corresponded with her children in West Virginia via letter. But in 1945, the letters stopped coming.
In the late 1940s, VanGilder’s daughter and brother started writing letters of their own to various police departments requesting their help in locating their missing family member. VanGilder’s daughter even contacted the FBI, but was told they couldn’t get involved.
The case was finally reopened after Shelby Police Chief Lance Combs was contacted by VanGilder’s granddaughter. Det. Turner reportedly asked to take the lead on the case and, in the course of his research, came across the story of Eaton’s Jane Doe.
Turner then reached out to local authorities, including former Preble County Coroner’s Office Investigator David Lindloff, who remembered the case from 1968 and helped arrange for the exhumation. The City of Eaton waived the associated costs to help find justice, and a name, for Penny Doe.
Regardless of her true identity, Connelly stressed that she and others at Redgrave feel a strong connection to Penny and other unknown individuals whom they work to identify.
“These are some of the best and most caring people I’ve ever come in contact with,” Connelly said of her colleagues. “We do take each case personally, and Penny will remain a part of our family until we give her her name back and get her back to hers.”
Anyone who may have information about Penny Doe’s identity or the whereabouts of the missing remains is encouraged to contact Connelly at Kaycee@redgraveresearch.com.
Reach Anthony Baker at 937-683-4057 or on Facebook @mproperenglish