Michiana Unsolved: Mysterious remains

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ST. JOSEPH COUNTY, Ind. (WNDU) - The area near Cleveland Road and State Road 933 has changed over the past 34 years.

"This stretch of walkway right here and that footbridge is going to be where the old railroad spur used to be, PennCentral railroad tracks. The Comfort Suites were not here. This property was actually the Howard Johnson's Motor Lodge back in 1985," St. Joseph County Metro Homicide Unit Detective Sgt. Ken Cornelis recounts.

And pictures show familiar landmarks. The Indiana Toll Road, the light post and the scrub trees where the body was found.

"A husband and wife and their daughter were walking their dog, were heading south, came to this area, smelled the odor. The father went to investigate the odor and then found the deceased," Cornelis explained.

On June 9, 1985, they found a man shot and killed. Cornelis said the body was badly decomposed, but the man still had enough hair, viable fingerprints and teeth for forensic experts to analyze.

An artist reconstruction gives an idea of what the man might have looked like.

"From what I've seen and the information I've gathered and read through, the victim was placed there at the scene. You can't really read any motive into it; it is a body found, and after the autopsy, [it] was ruled that John Doe was a victim of homicide. He was murdered and he was placed in that location," Cornelis said.

"Would you say that this is a good place to hide a body?" Kim Shine asked Metro Homicide detective Dave Dosmann as they walked the scene in the 21000 block of Madison Road.

"Yes, because it's not well-traveled. It's remote," Dosmann said.

Eleven years later, a group of hunters came across bones in the 21000 block of Madison Road. An American Electric Power utility access area.

"As they're tromping around the field and the brush, they discovered some bones, and it looked like these may not be animal," he added.

And they weren't. A woman's bones were found Dec. 29, 1996. Investigators later nicknamed her "Madison".

Dosmann said she'd been there more than a year, too long to determine an exact cause of death.

"This case is skeletal remains, so we don't have an option of scars, marks, tattoos, eye color. We do know she had brown hair," he added.

But there was something unique, something she'd had since birth.

"Her upper lateral incisors, tooth 7 and tooth 10, so in other words, not the two middle ones but the upper incisors on each side, they were missing," Dosmann said.

Dental X-rays and DNA were collected from "Madison," and forensic anthropologists have examined her case with no luck.

Both detectives say that, to their knowledge, neither victim has ever been reported missing locally. And though there is some DNA, it hasn't matched anything submitted into National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs.

But Madison's case was entered into NamUs, a free resource of the National Institute of Justice. Scientific experts can compares DNA and other information to missing, unidentified and unclaimed persons cases across the country.

NamUs estimates nearly 600,000 individuals go missing each year in the U.S., and 4,400 unidentified bodies are recovered.

In Indiana, NamUs lists 177 missing persons and 55 unidentified remains, including Madison. Advanced technology may hold the key to identifying her and John Doe.

"And that basically would examine a bone sample, it would be a tooth and/or hair," Dosmann said.

He's talking about stable isotope testing, which can track the region where a person lived based on the elements in those environments.

"Isotope testing can be very useful in cold cases and situations where there are no leads on the identification of the individual," said Dr. Krista Latham, director of the University of Indianapolis Human Identification Center.

Isotopes, like oxygen or carbon, come from sources like water and our food. Our bodies store them, and the amounts vary across the country. After death, experts can examine and compare them to scientific standards.

"So, if we can test a bone, it can tell us about some of the more recent areas where that person might have lived. If we have a piece of hair or a fingernail, that's going to tell us the most recent information about that individual. So, potentially, where they were living at a time of death," Latham added.

But the tests are expensive, around $2,000, Dosmann said. And Latham said they can only pinpoint a region, not necessarily a specific city.

Familial DNA tests like Ancestry.com or 23andMe could also provide a link. The tests have already helped solve cases, including the 1988 abduction, sexual assault and murder of April Tinsley, 8, in Fort Wayne. Indiana currently has no law requiring these tests, but they can be done in a private lab.

"So, there's somebody out here that's missing a loved one -- whether this individual was reporting missing to a law enforcement agency in the United States, I can't guarantee it. I would sure hope so," Dosmann said.

Because as time moves on, those who knew these victims may no longer be around. But that won't stop the search to learn who they are and bring them justice.

In the John Doe case, Cornelis plans to resubmit fingerprint cards to the South Bend Police Department and the FBI. He'll also enter the case into NamUs.

Dosmann hopes to find funding for the isotope testing or agencies that will donate resources to Madison's case.

If you have information on either investigation, contact the St. Joseph County Metro Homicide Unit at 574-235-5009 or Crime Stoppers at 574-288-7867. You can remain anonymous.

As Kim continues to revisit cold cases around Michiana, she wants to hear from you. Are there any unsolved murders that you would like her to explore?

If so, let her know through email at Kim.Shine@wndu.com or connecting with her on Twitter or Facebook.

This is the latest in Kim Shine's series of reports on unsolved cases in our area. Click on the stories below to read and watch her previous installments of Michiana Unsolved: