January 13, 2013
Murder victims don't stop telling their stories. They continue speaking even after death. Not in words, but in healed broken bones and old wounds, or hair and teeth and fingernails.
It could be the way they fell, and what's under them, or the prison tats on the arms and the bullets in the back, or it could be a report of cyanide poisoning. Sometimes, the story the victims tell is about money, financial statements of cash lost or lent or found.
Most victims tell simple stories that begin with a name, a place for investigators to start.
But Jane Doe doesn't have a name.
And she didn't belong in that place where she was found, an Asian woman of middle age tossed into an alley near West Side railroad tracks.
She was beaten to death.
I'm asking that you help identify her if you can, because she deserves at least that much.
Jane Doe was found near a vacant lot in the alley on West 23rd Street near South Avers Avenue, at just before midnight May 11, 2011. I walked it last week, with freight trains rolling, tire ruts in the soft ground, puddles, a rusted 50-gallon drum on its side and dry weeds, a flimsy cyclone fence all around.
Jane Doe isn't like many other homicide victims in Chicago. She wasn't a gangbanger. She didn't participate in what's often euphemistically called a "high-risk lifestyle," meaning that she wasn't a hooker, and she wasn't on the pipe.
"We have a truly innocent victim here," said Chicago police Area Central Cmdr. Anthony Riccio. "This is not somebody who's a drug dealer, who was a gangbanger, who in some way is involved with something that can lead to their death. This is an innocent victim.
"This is an older woman who, by every indication, was probably tortured in some fashion that led to her death," Riccio said. "And the frustration really comes in. ... The very first step in solving her murder is finding out who she is."
She was somewhere in her 50s or 60s, and tiny — only 4 feet 9 inches tall and weighing 98 pounds. According to the Cook County medical examiner's office and police, she died of massive internal injuries from blunt force trauma. She had a mole below her right eye, and two gold-capped upper teeth.
There was something else about the teeth. They were stained almost black.
This suggested to authorities and experts on Asian culture that she spent years chewing betel nut, a common seed from a palm tree known throughout Asia and India that stains the teeth. Betel nut, also known as the areca nut, is a mild narcotic, chewed by socioeconomic classes ranging from field hands to urban clerks and professionals. Its use throughout Asia dates back thousands of years.
Detectives believe she may have been a Southeast Asian immigrant, possibly from Vietnam or Cambodia.
Some of her ribs had been broken. She is believed to have been in a dependent situation, either physically or mentally challenged. This leads detectives to theorize she may have been killed by a relative or a caretaker and that she was a victim of constant physical — though not sexual — abuse.
It happens to the old behind closed doors. Experts say that 75 to 90 percent of elder abuse is committed by families.
"You can see how it would be easy for a family member to isolate an older person," said Mary Twomey, co-director of the University of California at Irvine's Center of Excellence on Elder Abuse & Neglect. "Elderly relatives from other countries are sometimes brought over to this country to sometimes play the role of baby sitter or cook or sort of general domestic, and they usually qualify for some kind of supplemental income (SSI) … and sometimes the family comes to depend upon that person for that extra income."
She said immigrants who don't speak English are particularly vulnerable.
"They don't have the slightest idea who to reach to for help," Twomey said. "They may come from a culture where calling the police or the government is the last thing you want to do. And a lot of older family members just don't want to get younger family members in trouble."
Detectives have completed more than 100 interviews, hoping for leads as to Jane Doe's real name. They've submitted DNA samples to a national database, and they've worked with the FBI in the hope of identifying Jane Doe. One place detectives visited was Asian Human Services Chicago, where Deborah Jackson is the mental health director.
The problem is that Chicago's Asian community isn't monolithic. Asians come from many nations, with varied languages and dialects. And sometimes ancient animosities between cultures in the old lands keep groups here from sharing information.
"They're very separate communities," Jackson said. "They have their own separate associations. They have separate neighborhoods. There's not just one Asian community."
In that barren lot near the tracks where she was found, Jane Doe was wearing a short-sleeve red T-shirt with white and blue stripes, and red cotton sweatpants. Her shoes had been removed.
All it takes is someone out there to have a memory triggered, and to act on it. Though I didn't want to run her death photo in the paper, it is included in an online file at chicagotribune.com/janedoephoto. (Caution: This photo shows a murder victim postmortem and may be disturbing to some readers). If you recognize her, or have any information as to her possible identity, please contact Area Central detectives at (312) 747-8380.
"If we could identify her, I think that's going to lead us right to her killer," said Riccio. "Once this domino falls, I think we'll see the others fall."
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