ECONOMY, Pennsylvania (Reuters) - The woman’s severed head lay in the woods, 10 yards off a rural road. Her mouth was open. Her eyes were closed. Her hair was gray and fluffy.
A teenager spotted her about half past noon on Dec. 12, 2014. Moments later, police say, the boy called 911. “I found a human head,” he calmly told the operator.
Today, almost three years after the discovery, the woman’s identity remains a mystery.
Authorities haven’t determined how or when she died, her age, why she was decapitated, or how her head came to rest off Mason Road in this town of 12,000 not far from Pittsburgh.
Despite an initial flurry of tips, police say they have no suspects. But they do have a leading theory.
They believe the head may have been severed by a so-called body broker – someone who sells body parts from a cadaver donated to science.
“She was dismembered professionally,” said Michelle Vitali, an anatomy professor at Edinboro University near Erie who closely examined the head. “It’s part of the body parts trade.”
Pathologist Cyril Wecht, a veteran of more than 20,000 autopsies, agreed that the cutting wasn’t done by an amateur. “We see a rather neat surgical dissection,” Wecht said after examining crime scene photos. “Somebody took their time.”
One reason the head may have come from the body trade: The industry has been linked to similar abuses in the past.
Reuters has identified thousands of body parts that have been misused or desecrated since 2004. In the case of Detroit-based body broker Arthur Rathburn, authorities allege he “stored human heads by stacking them directly on top of each other without any protective barrier.” Rathburn faces trial in January, charged with defrauding health care clients by misleading them about infected human remains and with lying to federal agents.
Typically, however, authorities stumble across these cases only by happenstance. An airline employee in Arkansas discovered 40 severed heads being shipped in plastic containers in 2010. Two years ago in Texas, police found an entire cadaver lying by the side of the road. It had fallen from a van on the way to a body broker in Colorado. The driver, Reuters reported at the time, hadn’t noticed that the body was missing.
Complicating the Pennsylvania case: Bodies and parts can be bought, sold and leased across America with relative ease. That makes determining the origins of remains like the head found in Economy difficult if not impossible.
“There’s so many places where you can get these parts,” Vitali said. “But it’s hard to trace back.”
Police say they’ll likely need the public’s help to solve what they call the most bizarre case they’ve handled.
“Two and half years plugging away at this thing. Got nowhere. It drives me crazy,” said Andrew Gall, chief of detectives for the Beaver County district attorney’s office. “I’ve been doing this job for a long time. I hadn’t had anything where I had a body part like this turn up.”
In the days after the head was found, authorities used cadaver dogs to scour the area. They also sought DNA from the woman, whose head had been embalmed. But those efforts yielded nothing. They uncovered no evidence in the forest, and the remains held no DNA; it had been destroyed by the embalming chemicals, authorities say.
Police brought in Vitali, who is also a forensic artist, and released a sketch and clay model she created to show what the woman may have looked like alive. Investigators set up a telephone hotline and initially figured a grave robber might be to blame. “I felt that we put this out and any moment, the phone was going to ring with that information,” Gall said. “That call never came.”
Quickly, the case of the bodiless woman, whom they now call Jane Doe, went cold. And the remaining clues seemed bewildering.
At the local morgue, authorities found eye caps – a mortician’s tool to keep the lids closed – in each of her eyes. But beneath those eye caps lay a surprise: a small red rubber ball in each of Jane Doe’s otherwise empty sockets.
The balls continue to baffle investigators and mortuary experts, who say they have never heard of red rubber balls being used to replace removed eyes. At least one company makes spheres that double as eye caps, but they are vastly different in color and texture than the balls found in the woman’s sockets.
Her eyes may have been taken through organ donation. But if Jane Doe died recently, it is likely that “an eye bank or an organ procurement organization would only remove the cornea from an eye,” said Wes Culp, deputy press secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Health.
A body broker, on the other hand, might remove and sell the full eye for research purposes. Laws governing organ donation and the body broker business differ substantially.
Transplantation organizations are strictly regulated but body brokers are not.
But why fill the empty sockets with the red balls? Using cotton to fill the space is cheaper. Red rubber balls, these marked CHINA, “are not used in either the funeral profession or in organ donor networks,” said Kevin Moran, an embalming instructor at the American Academy McAllister Institute of Funeral Service in New York.
“In my 40 years of doing this, I have never seen that,” he said.
The use of caps in Jane Doe’s eye sockets was “very professional,” Moran said. “And yet part of it is the rubber balls you get with a ball-and-jacks set. It doesn’t make sense.”
The situation also perplexes detective Gall, who hasn’t ruled out another scenario. “Prove to me it’s not a homicide – that she was alive and someone killed her and played with that body,” he said, “including putting the red eyeballs in there.”
If anyone is likely to identify Jane Doe, it might be a dentist.
Authorities found a full set of teeth inside the woman’s mouth and took X-rays. Dentists at the University at Buffalo School of Dental Medicine examined the head and determined that work had been done on every single tooth – one of them as many as seven times.
Using one of three teeth they pulled, the dentists also found what they believe to be a filling compound that wasn’t available to dentists before 2004, meaning the woman likely died sometime thereafter. Based on their examination, dentists Raymond Miller and Peter Bush were able to posit a possible profile of Jane Doe: a lower-income woman who had many cavities and may have grown up where the water wasn’t fluoridated.
She probably lacked top-notch dental insurance that would have covered crowns, but may have had a cheaper plan that paid for fillings, Miller said. The work on her mouth was what Miller called “patchwork dentistry,” in which problems are addressed only when necessary. Still, the work was well done, both dentists agreed.
“Somebody took good care of her,” Miller said. “Every tooth is filled or fixed in her mouth.” The extent of that work would make her “an easy ID if we had any kind of information about her.”
Investigators all but eliminated grave robbery. No recent cases had been reported that involved a missing head. And that left detective Gall asking, “Where does the head come from?”
Authorities turned to anatomy professor and forensic artist Vitali.
Jane Doe’s skin had been cut raggedly around the front of her neck. But the cut beneath the skin was smooth and exact. Vitali also noticed two slits on the back of the neck, and the woman’s cervical spine was gone. The cuts suggested the spine was explicitly removed – an indication that Jane Doe’s head was used in the body parts industry, Vitali and others said.
“When we lifted the flap at the back of the neck, we could see that the whole purpose of that was to access the key joint that would preserve both the head and the vertebral column, thereby maximizing the profitability of both,” Vitali said.
X-rays of the head clearly show the vertebrae are missing.
“This is not anybody going with a kitchen knife or anything remotely like that,” Vitali said. “It was well done, and it was placed perfectly.”
Vitali’s observations gave rise to the body broker theory and a new approach to attacking the mystery. “One of the things we considered doing was purchasing a human head,” said Michael O’Brien, Economy’s police chief.
Vitali would lead the effort. “If we just went out and bought another human head, what would we find?” Vitali wondered. “It was really as simple as that.”
The hope was that investigators might learn two things. “We were looking to see the ease or difficulty level of purchasing that head,” O’Brien said, “and then to see what that head actually looked like, as far as where the head was cut.”
But authorities decided not to proceed. They reasoned that any body broker who vetted Vitali easily could have found media reports mentioning her connection to the case and balked at selling to her, believing her purchase was a set-up.
After learning of the abandoned effort, Reuters decided to move forward for some of the same reasons that inspired Pennsylvania authorities. Could a head be purchased easily from a body broker? Would the cuts be similar? And would the cervical spine be removed?
A broker in Tennessee with no ties to the case, James Byrd, already had sold the news agency a cervical spine a few months earlier. Byrd informed Reuters reporter Brian Grow that he could also supply human heads – for about $300 each, plus shipping. In January, Grow purchased two heads and asked a medical researcher to compare the way those heads were severed with photos of how Jane Doe’s head was cut in the Pennsylvania case.
The manner in which the heads sold to Grow were severed supports the theory that a body broker somewhere once handled Jane Doe’s head, according to an anatomist Reuters consulted. Of particular note were the similarities in the internal cuts between the heads Reuters purchased and the head found in Pennsylvania, said Angela McArthur, who leads the anatomical bequest program at the University of Minnesota.
McArthur examined the heads bought by Reuters and reviewed photos of Jane Doe’s head.
Based on the police photos, McArthur noted that the “surgical cuts on the posterior portion of her neck along with the carotid artery, the trachea and the esophagus also make me think that this was a procurement of her cervical spine.”
Similarities aside, McArthur also said she was troubled that neither of the heads Reuters purchased had an identification tag that marked the head itself. Although such tags are not required by law, McArthur considers them critical to track the donor’s identity. Without it, a head found by the side of a road – just like Jane Doe’s – might never be identified.
Authorities have tried other approaches to solving the case.
They examined isotopes from oxygen molecules that remained in the woman’s teeth and hair to determine where Jane Doe may have spent her last few months. The answer, not surprisingly, included the region near where her head was found and stretches into surrounding states, including West Virginia.
But the analysis of the isotopes also indicated that she did not live in Beaver County in the months before her death. Toxicology tests also suggest the woman may have suffered from chronic pain and that paramedics tried to resuscitate her around the time of her death. Authorities believe she was older than 50 when she died.
Gall, a 40-year law enforcement veteran who takes pride in solving cold cases, says he’s staying on the pursuit.
“I just won’t give up hope because I keep thinking that something is going to break this loose for us,” Gall said. “Someone is going to think of something that’s going to help us solve this.”
Do you recognize this woman, or know how she came to be left in the woods in Economy, Pennsylvania? Help us solve the mystery.
Reuters hotline: 401-702-4323
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Economy Police Department: 724-869-7877
Reported by Blake Morrison and Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs; edited by Michael Williams