Jan 16 2024

Identifying Jane Doe X-1

Genetic GenealogyForensic

Today’s guest blog is written by Olivia McCarter, Genealogy Analyst, Moxxy Forensic Investigations, Mobile County Sheriff’s Office. Reposted from the ISHI Report with permission.


 

May 18th, 1976 was a warm day in Grand Bay, Alabama. Two teenage boys headed out to Session’s Creek with plans to go fishing when they instead discovered the discarded remains of an elderly female wrapped in trash bags. She had been shot in the back of the head, horribly beaten, and her hands were missing, having been haphazardly severed. To deter identification of the woman, her dentures had been removed from her mouth.

 

The Mobile County Sheriff’s Office and lead investigator, Det. Willie “Cookie” Estes, exhausted all available resources that were available to them during this time. Without fingerprints and dentals, they turned to the local media, with hopes that showing the woman’s face would spur recognition.

 

 

During the late 1970’s, the small town of Grand Bay, Alabama, near the Alabama/Mississippi border, had a population of around two thousand people. News of the heinous murder ran rampant; however, no one recognized or came looking for her.

 

With no leads, she was given the name “Jane Doe X-1” and released to the Anatomical Donations Program at the University of South Alabama, where she was eventually cremated in 1979 and the case went cold.

 

Fifteen years later, in 1994, the remains of another elderly female were found in a different creek in Grand Bay. The woman had been beaten to death with a mop handle and, like Jane Doe, her hands had been severed. She was weighed down to sink in the water.

 

Unlike Jane Doe, she was quickly identified as Erma Williams, a woman in her late eighties missing from Moss Point, Mississippi, just on the other side of the Alabama/Mississippi state line. A tip came into the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office from the girlfriend and next-door neighbor of Erma’s son, Henderson “Jim” Williams.

 

The girlfriend stated that Jim admitted to her that he had killed his mother and dumped her body in a nearby creek. When the police arrived at Jim’s residence, they discovered a fire still smoldering in the backyard with his mother’s burnt hands found among the ashes.

 

Jim was quickly arrested. Authorities in both Mobile County and Jackson County, Mississippi, questioned Jim regarding Jane Doe’s murder from two decades prior. Instead of denying the murder, Williams refused to talk. He was placed in the Mississippi State Penitentiary where he died in 2010, seemingly taking Jane Doe’s identity with him to the grave.

In 2021, the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office hired me to look into some local cold cases. When reviewing the files, I came across Jane Doe X-1’s case, which stuck out, because she had been found in my hometown of Grand Bay and had been released to my alma mater, the University of South Alabama.

 

I was born in 2001, long after Jane Doe had died, but I had heard stories of her. People in my small town still talked about her, wondering why no one had ever come forward with her identity. I badly wanted to help her regain her identity, but there seemed to be no way to identify her without fingerprints, dentals, or a body to get a DNA sample from.

 

This all changed when a ceramic dental mold was discovered. The dental mold had been shoved into Jane Doe’s mouth, even though the woman had no teeth. It was found tucked away in an evidence box for another case. I didn’t expect it to have viable DNA to use and suspected that any DNA that was found would likely be contaminated as investigators didn’t wear latex gloves back when the mold was created. Yet, there appeared to be dead skin embedded in the mold.

 

After a failed attempt at swabbing the mold, the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office sent the dental mold to a non-profit laboratory in Salt Lake City, Utah. Danny Hellwig of Intermountain Forensics and I had discussed what to do with the mold, when Danny suggested that M-Vac™ testing be tried. It was a long shot, but it was worth a try.

 

The M-Vac™ system uses wet-vacuum principles to allow DNA material to be collected from porous areas that are difficult to reach otherwise. DNA free buffer is sprayed directly onto the surface, while at the same time, a vacuum is applied around the spray pattern to create a “mini-hurricane” to collect the buffer with the suspended particles. These are then transferred into a sterile collection bottle, poured through a concentration filter, and that filter sent to the lab for further processing.

 

Ultimately, 145 nanograms of DNA was extracted from the MVAC filter. It was degraded but not contaminated. Whole-genome sequencing commenced, and a raw data profile was produced by Intermountain Forensics. Moxxy Forensic Investigations, a company I co-own, was hired to perform the genealogical research. Although she was found in a small town with very little visitors, Jane Doe showed ancestors in the northwestern United States.

 

After nineteen days of genealogical research, Moxxy Forensic Investigations identified Jane Doe as 61-year-old Ada Elizabeth Fritz. Ada Fritz was born to Edgar and Verna Fritz in September of 1914, the youngest of two children. She grew up in Sheridan, Wyoming, before marrying Elmer Schubert and moving to Portland.

 

Ada Fritz pictured with her older brother. Photo likely circa 1940’s.

 

Ada’s relatives described to investigators going to visit with “Aunt Ada” and “Uncle Elmer” in Portland during the summers. Ada was an avid fisherman and loved to hunt. When Elmer passed away in 1969, Ada stayed in Portland, later retiring from the Oregon State Hospital. Ada later remarried to another man in 1975, just six months before her demise.

 

Ada was last known to live in Batesville, Arkansas. She was in the process of leaving her abusive husband when she must have traveled to the Gulf Coast where she ran into Jim Williams.

 

Because of the dedicated and devoted investigators that the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office has had over the last forty-seven years, the Ada Fritz homicide is officially closed.

“Ada’s case held some unusual challenges. However, by combining cutting edge technologies and an exceptional team unafraid of finding inventive solutions, we were able to overcome these obstacles to her identification. It’s an absolute honor for our laboratory to be a part of such a remarkable team and to add our efforts to reclaim Ada Elizabeth Fritz’s name for herself and her loved ones. It is our hope that this case can highlight innovation and teamwork in making a real difference to provide answers to these long-standing mysteries”, says Danny Hellwig, whose idea to try MVAC testing as a last-ditch attempt to identify Jane Doe paid off. Through teamwork and creativity, Ada Fritz’s name is now known, and she can finally be at peace.

 

When people ask me why I got into cold cases and investigative genetic genealogy, I usually give a basic answer of “I was just interested in it”, however, the real answer is that when I was younger, I genuinely felt that I had no purpose and that life did not have any meaning. Once I found that I had the ability to help people who have lost all other hope, I found my purpose. I have spent most of my career looking for this woman and her family. Even though I have never met this woman and likely would have never crossed paths with her if she wasn’t killed, I care deeply about her. Being able to solve a case that everyone, including myself at one point, deemed “unsolvable” and that case being from the town that my family helped build is an incredibly emotional feeling. From the bottom of my heart, I thank everyone who has every laid their hands on this case–the original investigators who have long passed away, the investigators who trusted a twenty-one year old kid with a very old cold case, Intermountain Forensics, M-vac™ Systems, and our team at Moxxy Forensic Investigations. Because of all of these people coming together, we were able to identify Ada Fritz and tell her story and tell the world who she was–a kind, gentle-hearted woman who loved her family with all of her heart.

 

 

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