Kristen Drury walked through the grass toward a flat headstone in West Hills Memorial Park. She was looking for another one nearby, smaller and simpler.
She needed to find plot 13b in the Lower Apostles Garden, a cluster of markers to the left of the entrance of the private cemetery in West Valley. Map in hand, Drury located plot 15, took two big steps to her right and looked down.
“So she’s here,” Drury said.
Crouching close to the ground, Drury reached out with her left hand, feeling for gaps in the turf and a small square of rough concrete. She gave up after a few minutes. It might be there under the grass and dirt, but she wouldn’t find it without a long metal prod and a shovel.
That didn’t surprise her. It had been nearly 15 years since Drury last stood here and saw what resembled a temporary marker, used until a permanent stone could be placed.
Then and now, its words — Jane Doe — haunt her.
Drury was still new to the Yakima Police Department’s forensic lab that summer. Today, she is its supervisor. A scientist among investigators, she spends most days working alone in a darkened room, piecing together or pulling apart evidence that will answer crucial questions and put criminals behind bars.
On July 29, 2004, Drury stood at Doe’s grave as authorities exhumed her body. Despite unique features such as a surgical scar on her abdomen and a small star tattoo on the top of her right thigh, she hasn’t been identified since she was found on July 25, 1977. Detectives hoped by collecting her DNA, they could finally give Doe her name.
Doe’s death was horrifying.
Discovered in the back of a van abandoned in a fenced Yakima Hardware Co. parking lot at 309 S. Front St., she had been struck with something above her left eye and the back of her head, strangled and sexually mutilated. She was face-down, the top of her partially decomposed body covered by a blue shirt and a green sweater placed over her torso. She wore nothing below her waist but socks.
Estimated to be from 18 to 30 years old, Doe was a woman of undetermined race with brown hair and brown eyes, between 5 feet 3 inches and 5 feet 9 inches tall. She weighed around 140 pounds.
More clothing was found outside the van nearby — white panties stenciled in red lettering with “Scott-Lillie-2H” — along with a Forever Yours candy bar. Investigators also found clothing scattered near the business, including a pair of blue pants, a homemade yellow dress, a white sock with blue and red trim and a pair of black boots.
Investigators said the green delivery van, which belonged to the nonprofit Opportunities Industrialization Center of Washington, had not been driven for months. OIC was then at First and Walnut streets and used that parking lot, along with hardware store employees. The van’s rear door could be latched but not locked, and Doe’s body had lain inside at an angle, her head against the seat on the far right side and her feet touching the left rear corner of the van, for at least two weeks, possibly a month.
She didn’t die there. Someone put her there.
Though authorities sent her fingerprints and tissue samples to an FBI lab in Washington, D.C., her DNA to the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification and have entered her information in two national unidentified persons databases, Doe is the only open Yakima Police Department case involving unidentified remains.
Drury wants to change that.
Forensic science has made astounding advances since Doe’s discovery. Today, DNA can be pulled from a fingerprint. And DNA can be used to generate an image that is remarkably similar to a photograph of the donor.
“It’s a great tool. It changed the whole landscape of law enforcement,” said Detective Sgt. Tim Bardwell, head of detectives for the Yakima Police Department.
Drury has requested funds to submit samples of Doe’s DNA to GEDmatch, a genealogy service with profiles of more than a million people, or another genetic genealogy site to identify relatives in hopes of contacting them and confirming her identity.
That could cost anywhere from $3,000 to $5,000, depending on the research involved.
“The request has been made. I’m waiting for further direction at this point,” Drury said. “As soon as I get the OK, it could within the next few months we could have that back.”
Genetic genealogy -- combining DNA extraction and traditional genealogical research to establish the relationship between individuals and their ancestors -- could identify Doe.
“We would sure like to know who she is,” said Drury, who doesn’t think Doe was from the Yakima Valley.
Though West Hills may be far from Doe’s real home, Drury is glad she rests in such a lovely place. On this clear early spring evening, light dappled the rolling hills and towering ridges of Yakima County’s western reaches.
A gap in a row of tall hedges opened a vista to a valley beyond Doe’s grave, which is surrounded by others.
“She’s in a good spot. She’s by lots of people,” Drury said.
A very different downtown Yakima
For Drury, who is 39, learning about the Yakima of Doe’s time has surprised and -- at times -- shocked her. Hearing stories from older friends and relatives, Drury has become familiar with a section of downtown that catered to a crowd seeking cheap drinks, sex or something else.
Roy Willson, the officer who got the call of a deceased person that hot Monday morning, remembers it well.
“I got called there because someone reported a foul odor. The minute you drive up, you know what it is,” Willson said. Several workers at the Yakima Hardware Co. had reported a bad smell in the area of the fenced parking lot on the north side of the business.
He knew immediately even though he was still kind of a rookie, having joined the force in June 1975 after his discharge from the Army. Most of the people who hung out in the area along Front Street south of Yakima Avenue were older and not in good health, he said, so he was called out fairly often on unattended deaths.
Willson walked the beat in the downtown area, mostly around the Front and First street area between Chestnut and A Street (now Staff Sgt. Pendleton Way). The two blocks were a forbidding maze of taverns, pawn shops and cheap hotels.
“It was a rough area,” he recalled.
Growing up in Yakima, Willson had “cruised the Ave” as a teenager, from The Freezer drive-in near 11th and Yakima avenues to the YMCA at Naches and back, a circuit that could take up to an hour depending on who was out, the level of trash-talking and the amount of flirting.
Willson and his buddies had circled the “forbidden” areas to gawk at the prostitutes who strolled along North First Street to A Street to Front Street to Yakima Avenue and around again. Walking through the area as a beat officer was altogether different.