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Missing in Plain Sight: The Inequity Behind Cincinnati’s ‘North Fairmount Jane Doe’

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City Beat
Madeline Fening
February 21, 2024

Jamie Turner was walking home from church on Nov. 5, 2023, when he first encountered the police tape blocking him from his apartment.

“It was total and complete chaos,” Turner told CityBeat, his arms outstretched, eyes like dinner plates.

He said he flashed his ID to the officers at the intersection of Baltimore Avenue and Beekman Street in North Fairmount, pointing to the house he’d just moved into three months prior. Turner asked the officers what was going on. He expected to hear word of a bad car accident, maybe a shooting, but never this.

“I just moved here from Chicago. Understand this, I’ve seen my fair share of murders, but this is a first,” he said. “This is straight out of a movie.”

A naked human torso had been discovered by another neighborhood resident who was also walking to church just hours earlier. Discarded, but not carefully concealed, the remains were easy enough for the passerby to spot just a few dozen yards off the road in an empty wooded lot.

Investigators addressed the public two days later saying the victim was a Black woman. They had a rough estimation of age (late 20s, but that would later change), an approximate size (maybe 5 feet tall, 120 pounds), and they had absolutely no idea who she was. To no one’s surprise, the case was quickly classified as a homicide.

“We’ve not had a case quite like this,” Dr. Lakshmi Kode Sammarco, the Hamilton County Coroner, told reporters. “And we need your help.”

Three months after her initial discovery, CityBeat sat down with investigators, researchers and community members to build a comprehensive guide to everything we know about this case as of press time, and why Black women are more likely to face violence and injustice in the first place.

“I know one thing for sure, two things for certain, an alien did not just leave a decapitated person next to me,” Turner said. “Someone did this.”

Known facts of the case

The ensuing weeks after Jane Doe was first discovered were quiet. Investigators searched for trace evidence, looking for hair, blood, anything that appeared related to the case. Criminalists ran DNA and investigators fielded hotline tips, but the most significant development came two months after Jane Doe was first discovered.

During a Jan. 3 sweep of the area, Cincinnati’s FBI Evidence Response Team was assisting with the search for more body parts when agents discovered a human head two blocks away from the location where the torso was found, further perplexing community members. The coroner confirmed the body parts matched the following week. Though more decomposed than her torso, Jane Doe’s head has given investigators more information to piece together her identity.

Captain Steve Saunders leads the Criminal Investigation Section at the Cincinnati Police Department. He told CityBeat – in his 33 years with the department – this is a first-of-its-kind case.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” he said. “I’ve seen lots of gruesome crime scenes and horrible things that have happened to people, which is bad enough as it is, but to see this level of heinous behavior is disturbing.”

Saunders walked us through every detail that he could share about the case, a rare occurrence in an investigation of this scale, but he said this is a special circumstance. In a Feb. 2 press release from CPD Chief Teresa Theetge, she said the department needs people to reach out with ideas about Jane Doe’s identity.

“If you have noticed a friend, family member, neighbor, employee, resident, patient, or other acquaintance has been unaccounted for, we want to hear from you,” the release reads. “Regardless of how insignificant you think your information might be, or whether you think we are already aware of it, please contact us and allow us to make that determination.”

Saunders put it more plainly.

“We’re begging the public for their help,” he said. “This person deserves answers.”


The coroner’s office has determined Jane Doe was killed not long before her body was discovered the morning of Nov. 5. They estimate her time of death was likely on or around Nov. 3. During a Jan. 11 press conference, Sammarco mentioned the passerby who spotted Jane Doe on Nov. 5 told investigators they might have seen her the night before while walking home, but that it was too dark to tell. Getting a better look the following morning, the witness called police.

“Originally, he thought that it was – this was right after Halloween – he didn’t know if this was some sort of a prank or mannequin or something,” Sammarco said.

Saunders said this witness has been interviewed “extensively” but that investigators have no reason to believe they had anything to do with Jane Doe’s death.

Doorbell cameras and other home surveillance systems in the area are sparse, said Saunders, but those that were functioning within the dumping timeline were reviewed by investigators.

“It’s a very small percentage of people who have surveillance cameras on their homes. Even if they do have a Ring or similar product on their home, it has a very limited field of view,” he said. “Some people do have surveillance cameras, and we’ve looked at that footage to see what we have, and nothing has been discernible to the point where it’s been valuable in this investigation.”

Known Body Parts

Saunders said Jane Doe’s head was located “a couple blocks away” from the location of the torso, but declined to be more specific about the location for the sake of the investigation. ​​Additional items “related to body parts” have been recovered from the area, according to the coroner, but those details are also under seal. Investigators maintain she was without any clothes or jewelry when she was found.

Neither Saunders nor Sammarco would comment directly on which body parts are still missing, but Saunders noted that, even if a hand was found, it would be too late to run her fingerprints.

“You’re not going to have enough skin remaining because of decomposition, there would be nothing fingerprints wise that you would be able to get,” he said.

Sammarco said her office has a “pretty good idea” of the cause of death, but said she won’t share that information with the public until more testing is done.

“I think it will be critical to discovering who this might be,” she said in January. This was still the case as of press time.

Another fact that is unknown to the public, and potentially still unclear to investigators, is the tools used to dismember Jane Doe’s body. During the first press conference about Jane Doe, Sammarco said tests would be done to confirm the methods of dismemberment.

Physical Descriptors

Some of Jane Doe’s physical descriptors became more vague once her head was discovered, but the discovery also opened up new possibilities.

At first, investigators believed Jane Doe to be in her late 20s to early 30s, but since the discovery of her head that range has since been widened to 20-45 years old.

“We have been consulting with a forensic anthropologist and a forensic odontologist since the head was discovered,” Sammarco said. “There’s a little bit of a debate over her possible age. We’re increasing the age group that we’re looking for from late 20s, early 30s to maybe early 50s, although I still feel like she’s probably on the younger end.”

Despite having decomposed outside for two months, Sammarco said Jane Doe’s head was in good enough condition to get “a lot of information.” She said CT images will be provided to a forensic artist who will create a digital mock-up of her face. There is no ETA on that image as of press time.

There was “some hair remaining” when authorities found Jane Doe’s head, with the coroner describing her hair as short and curly and either “African American or mixed-race African American.”

Her head contained teeth, but Sammarco declined to say whether any were missing. Still, it’s enough to compare dental records, but they need to have a name to make a comparison.

“Obviously we have some dental images now, but if we don’t know who she is, we don’t know where to ask for dental records,” Sammarco told reporters. “If somebody comes forward with some information about who she could be, then we can make some requests for dental records.”

Little has changed since the initial estimates about Jane Doe’s body. Her estimated height and weight are still believed to be between 5’-5’5’’ and 120 pounds. But one newer piece of information is that her build was described as athletic.

“She seemed like someone who had been taking care of herself,” Sammarco told reporters on Jan. 11. “As far as physical condition of the body, we felt that she was in very good health.”

Saunders agreed.

“I would say this person, from my observation, appeared to be a healthy person,” Saunders said.

The results of Jane Doe’s toxicology screening have not yet been disclosed to the media.

Another key detail in Jane Doe’s physical description has been the coroner’s assessment that she had been pregnant at least once and likely gave birth in recent years. The widened age range has not impacted their estimates on when she may have given birth, but investigators have said Jane Doe could reasonably be a mother to a 3-10 year-old child.

“Somebody knows that this woman did have a child,” Saunders said. “How does that person go missing? And then nobody comes forward to tell us that they’re looking for their loved one? It raises all these questions in your head.”

The parts of Jane Doe’s body that have been discovered are free of scars and tattoos, but the coroner’s office has not disclosed any possible piercings she might have had over time.

The call for more details

Investigators are relying on the public to help identify Jane Doe, but Crystal Kendrick, founder of the Voice of Black Cincinnati media organization, said the community needs more details about her physical description to get there.

Kendrick, who often posts about missing persons of color on the Voice of Black Cincinnati Facebook page, said specifics are critically important for missing Black women.

“We have various ways that we describe people’s skin tone in the African American community,” Kendrick told CityBeat. “Clearly there has to be somebody of African American descent over there that can give a term. We don’t have a scale from 1-10, just words, like, is she fair, is she redbone, is she caramel, is she brown, is she chocolate, is she ebony?”

To Kendrick, the details are about more than narrowing the search, they’re about reaffirming the importance of the case.

“I’m just pleading, they need a person of color, a police officer or a sheriff’s deputy or somebody of color to please help with these descriptions,” she said. “Withholding information could give some people the impression that it’s not important.”

DNA and genetic information

With little information about the victim, developing a DNA profile for Jane Doe is one of the most powerful tools in this case, and Saunders said there is still more to learn.

The main DNA database that investigators use to run samples is the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), which is maintained by the FBI.

“CODIS is this database of information of people who are offenders that have been arrested for something,” Saunders told CityBeat. “It’s not a voluntary submission, we got their DNA through being processed through the criminal justice system.”

Jane Doe was not in CODIS, according to Saunders, which means she hasn’t committed an offense that would be considered a felony anywhere in the U.S. He said the next step is to take her DNA, develop a profile, and work with genealogy companies like 23andMe and to see if she or anyone related to her has ever volunteered their DNA to the companies, but that field is still very narrow.

“Not everybody that participates in these voluntary ancestry genealogy systems submits their DNA to be accessible to law enforcement, you have to literally opt in to do that,” he said. “There’s also a very low representation of African Americans and minorities in these genealogy databases that we can go to.”

According to a 2018 study on genome biology published in BioMed Central, nearly 80% of those who elect to share their DNA information from ancestry services are of European descent. A study from Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee found less than 2% of the overall genetic information being studied today originates from people of African ancestry.

The threats facing Black women

The rarity of this case has struck investigators. After all, Sammarco said she’s only seen four dismembered bodies in her 12 years as coroner.

What is not rare, nor surprising to advocates in the Black community, is how often Black women go missing or are victims of violent crime, or both.

Derrica Wilson is one of the founders of the Black and Missing Foundation, a national organization that brings awareness to missing persons of color cases, provides resources and tools to missing person’s loved ones and educates the minority community on personal safety.

“I started this organization with my sister-in-law, Natalie,” Wilson told CityBeat. “My background is law enforcement, her background is media and public relations, and those are the two critical professions needed for finding and bringing people home.”

Wilson had not heard of the North Fairmount Jane Doe case before speaking with CityBeat. Normally Black and Missing focuses on finding known people who are unaccounted for, but that this case is still relevant to her mission.

“I think about the case that you’re highlighting with Jane Doe, that no one knows who this is, it’s so bothersome to me,” Wilson said. “This is a case that still falls under our umbrella because this person is missing. She is a missing person.”

Black and Missing works to correct an imbalance often seen in missing persons cases involving minority communities, where Black people, especially minors, are often classified as runaways when they are reported missing.

“They’re not looking for us,” Wilson said of law enforcement. “In fact, they often associate children’s disappearance by classifying them as a runaway, and we know runaways do not meet the criteria for Amber Alert.”

The FBI reported 546,568 missing persons in 2022, according to the National Crime Information Center (NCIC). Nearly 40 percent of those missing in 2022 were persons of color, with Hispanics classified as white. Black Americans, however, make up only 13 percent of the national population.

Checking missing persons for Jane Doe

In the case of Jane Doe, Saunders said the local, county, state and federal agencies who are all involved in her case continue to cross reference missing persons cases around the country.

“These types of investigations, the answers that you want to get take a long time, because you’re starting from a place where you know nothing about this victim,” he said. “ If we had relevant, missing persons cases, that would meet a match or close to a match of this person, then we will be going further down that path. We just don’t have this.”

Investigators are using the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs), a national centralized repository and resource center for missing, unidentified and unclaimed person cases across the U.S.

“We’ve had some law enforcement agencies from outside the area reach out to us thinking that this person might be one of their missings, and that has not proven to be the case,” he said. “If we find something that seems similar for a missing person case, in another area, we reach out to those law enforcement agencies. So it’s kind of an exchange of information based on what you know about this person.”

A problem with these national databases for missing persons, according to Wilson, is that not everyone’s information is entered equally.

“We know the numbers [of missing minorities] are much higher than the 40%,” she said. “We know that law enforcement do not always enter these cases; we do check behind and we follow up. And there’s many cases that they don’t enter.”

Tip lines for offering leads on missing persons cases are also a complex challenge for the Black community, said Wilson. The Black and Missing Foundation will sometimes receive tips before police because of cultural mistrust.

“We often get tips before law enforcement because we’re not trying to compromise anyone’s identity,” she said. “We just want the information that they have that can solve cases and end nightmares for the families that we’re serving.”

Saunders said he understands the history of mistrust, but emphasized to CityBeat that tip lines for CPD are wholly anonymous and a proven tool for solving crimes in the area.

“Greater Cincinnati CrimeStoppers is 100% anonymous,” he said. “We get tips that solve major crimes all the time. You just call the number, and now you can go online, submit information online. And people say, ‘Well, it’s not anonymous if you’re making something online.’ Well, it’s handled through a third party that shares the information with us. They’re not giving us your IP address or anything like that. We don’t care about that. Just tell us what you know, how you can help lead us in the direction of solving a crime.”

Wilson told CityBeat that sex trafficking and domestic violence are also major compounding factors that put Black individuals, especially Black women, at risk of going missing.

“We know that traffickers are targeting Black women because they admit it to us,” Wilson said. “There was research that was recently conducted by the Urban Institute, and [traffickers] admitted to targeting Black women and Black girls for two reasons: number one, law enforcement will not look for us, and number two, they would get less jail time by targeting a Black woman or a Black girl than if they targeted a white woman or white child.”

“Tamika Huston was missing as a result of her ex-boyfriend. Despite the fact that her aunt worked in media, she was an executive, she was met with silence when she tried to raise awareness to her niece’s disappearance, nobody wanted to cover the story,” Wilson said. “He ended up killing her.”

As of press time, an online search of stories related to the North Fairmount Jane Doe case have been largely limited to Cincinnati-area news outlets, with the exception of some news stations running a single syndicated story on their website. Yahoo News and USA Today appear to be the only national outlets that have run the story, despite the story of missing blonde teenager Gabby Petito garnering sensational media attention less than three years ago.

Recent trends in domestic violence

Tiara Willie is an assistant professor in the mental health department at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

An epidemiologist by training, Willie told CityBeat she’s interested in studying the root causes of structural and intimate partner violence amongst Black women. Her research has more recently shifted towards missing and murdered women.

“Whenever we see these cases of missing and murdered women, especially women who have been dismembered in that way, as violence researchers, we automatically assume that this is an intimate partner who did this to her,” Willie told CityBeat. “We know that with intimate partner homicide, Black women are four times more likely to be those victims than women in other racial or ethnic groups. It really is a pressing issue.”

Willie’s field is still rife with assumptions about what domestic violence looks like, and they’re often wrong. While non-violent forms of abuse in a relationship are widely regarded as less important, she said they’re on the rise, and can be a dangerous precursor.

“What we’ve been arguing in our work is that actually, this coercive control and psychological abuse, it’s actually more common than physical and sexual,” Willie said.

Studies from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Johns Hopkins University found women in abusive relationships saw a spike in coercive control during the pandemic. Coercive control is defined by the Domestic Violence Network as the pattern of behavior or actions used by a perpetrator to frighten, threaten, oppress and limit their victim. Willie conducted a study about what coercive control was looking like during the pandemic for Black women in particular.

“I was really concerned about what coercive control was looking like during the pandemic. Because women were forced to stay isolated with their partners during the lockdown, so we had some brave Black women experiencing partner violence that were able to talk to us when their partner left the house for work, if he was an essential worker, or when they were able to walk outside and talk to us. What we found was that over 80% of these women were experiencing coercive control.”

While heeding Saunders’ advice to not jump to conclusions on the case of Jane Doe, it’s hard to ignore Willie’s assessment of the facts of the case: Jane Doe was a Black woman who was killed and dismembered, she was potentially a mother, which Willie said puts her at a higher statistical risk for abuse, and no one has come forward looking for her in months.

“As someone who does research in this space, I would automatically assume that it was an intimate partner that did this to her, who isolated her from family and friends, which is why no one’s really come forward in months,” Willie said.

CityBeat asked Saunders to respond to Willie’s statement on the case, and he sees the plausibility in her assessment; he’s just not ready to take that leap.

“I appreciate her perspective and her research, her knowledge in that area,” he said. “For us in an investigation, we don’t have any way to even rationalize or try and justify that speculation on this investigation. I can’t make that leap in that direction. I’m not saying that’s not the case, potentially, it very much could be and I totally understand where she’s coming from. I’d say that’s certainly a plausible explanation, but I don’t have anything concrete to say whether it is or it isn’t. We just don’t know.”

What’s next?

Saunders said he’s not discounting the idea that Jane Doe could be local, even if no one in Greater Cincinnati seems to know who she is yet.

“[Some] are making the assumption, potentially, that this person is not from the area. I don’t want to jump that far,” he said. “I think we have to remind ourselves that if we start to go too hard in one direction and not another, then we might be missing something. So we have to go slow, we have to be patient, we have to follow the facts, we have to follow the evidence.”

Sammarco told CityBeat her office is speaking with investigators in Louisiana who are facing a similar case of a dismembered woman to compare notes and see if there’s any links to the North Fairmount Jane Doe.

Meanwhile, Saunders said crews have been in and out of the hilly areas surrounding Baltimore Avenue near Beekman Street continuing their trace evidence search for more pieces of evidence — more pieces of Jane Doe.

“I believe in my heart that once we identify who this person is, we’re going to find the link to the person who did this to her,” said Saunders.

Anyone with information about the North Fairmount Jane Doe case can make an anonymous tip by calling Crime Stoppers at 513-352-3040.

Photo credit: Aidan Mahoney / City Beat

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