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A mystery without a name

THE BALTIMORE SUN

She was a small, African-American woman, standing just an inch over 5 feet tall. She had an overbite and a gold cap inscribed with a dollar sign on one of her front teeth. And she may have worn a wig.

Beyond that, almost nothing is known. Except that she died young - in her early 20s.

The woman, known simply as "she" to city homicide detectives, was found last summer near a railroad track in Northeast Baltimore. She was naked and had been bound in the fetal position and stabbed in the back.

While the city was in the grip of a drought, her body dried and, by the time she was found, had become a mummy. Not the linen-wrapped, bejeweled version found in Egyptian tombs, but a hardened scientific specimen that has yielded practically no clues to her identify or that of her killer.

Last year, the city had 253 homicide victims and every one was identified by police - except "she."

"There's so little information that half the battle is figuring out who she is before figuring out who killed her," Baltimore police Detective Jason A. Callaghan said. "Until she's identified, there's no clue where to begin."

"She" has perplexed experienced investigators, who often discuss scenarios of her death. They debate where she was killed, whether her body was concealed in a small space - a locker, a suitcase that might explain her fetal position - before it was disposed of or whether she died in the woods where she was found, near the 3200 block of Ravenwood Ave.

Also, detectives say female victims, because they are usually more vulnerable, leave them with a sense of outrage. Only 28 of the city's 253 homicide victims last year were women. "Unsolved murders of females bothers everyone here," said police Lt. Terry McLarney, a 26-year veteran of the police force. "We owe it to the girl's people to let them know."

The case of the mummy has produced volumes of crime scene pictures and medical examiner's reports, but few clues. There were no fibers from clothes to trace. And there were no fingerprints to send to the FBI because mummified bodies yield no prints.

She did, however, have a triple-twist wire earring attached to the remains of her left ear.

Recently, Baltimore detectives, desperate to identify her, resorted to a rare forensic technique. They had the medical examiner remove her skull and send it to a Defense Department expert in facial reconstruction.

William C. Rodriguez III, 48, is a forensic anthropologist with the Armed Forces Medical Examiner's Office in Rockville. A pioneer in studying human decomposition, Rodriguez once established a "body farm" where corpses were allowed to decay under different conditions, including outdoors. The macabre farm became a setting for a mystery thriller by author Patricia Cornwell.

A reminder

His work on the mummy resulted in a carefully reconstructed skull with molded-clay facial features. It now sits in the homicide unit, a reminder to the detective squad that the case isn't cleared, with no arrests or suspects.

Facial reconstructions of homicide victims render a close - but not exact - impression of what they looked like in life, with simulated skin, eyes and hair. In the case of the mummified woman, her real teeth are visible.

The final result is meant to humanize the victim's features so that she can be recognized, giving detectives and the public something on which to move forward, Rodriguez said.

Callaghan, 28, the lead investigator on the "she" case, is regarded as a bright newcomer to the city's homicide unit. The native of Amherst, N.Y., became a Baltimore police officer after college in Buffalo because, Callaghan said, "I just wanted to be a cop since I was young."

In 1997, he was in the first class of the Baltimore Police Corps program designed to recruit more college graduates to city police forces. Then he patrolled the Northwestern police district and investigated child abuse cases before his promotion to homicide detective.

The mummy case is, in a way, his initiation to the big leagues.

"Every step prepared me," Callaghan said. "This is a good way for me to cut my teeth, so to speak."

What Callaghan has on his desk could be compared to a puzzle without enough pieces. He, his boss, McLarney, and others in the homicide unit have scrutinized the working-class cluster of rowhouses within shouting distance of the crime scene. Near Clifton Park, it has some drug-related crime and shootings, but it is not considered a particularly violent or frightening part of the city by police.

The best hope

After combing fruitlessly through scores of missing person reports for African-American women who fit the victim's description, Callaghan says Rodriguez's work may be the best hope for solving the mystery of the mummy.

First Rodriguez developed a "biological profile" based on an examination of the victim's remains, 6 inches of soil beneath the body, and insect activity on the corpse at the crime scene.

"Every skeleton is unique and tells a story about an individual's life," he said.

Sometimes a skeleton can reveal an occupation or an injury, whether the person was an athletic mountain climber, a trumpet player or a dockworker who unloaded ships.

The forensic profile of the Baltimore mummy did not note any such markers. Nor did it pinpoint when or where the victim died, or even whether her death took place indoors or outdoors.

Mummies are highly unusual in the Maryland's typical humid summer weather, Rodriguez said. But the presence of dermestid beetles, which feed on mummified remains, proved the process of mummification had taken place - though it was not clear when it began.

As a last step, Rodriguez directed a forensic artist in molding the clay facial reconstruction of the mummy's face as she may have appeared alive.

"We do them with the mouth open, because people when they communicate have a good remembrance of a smile," Rodriguez said. "We hope [the skull] shakes someone's memory and provides new leads."

Callaghan and his colleagues are determined to catch up with a perpetrator who they acknowledged has done a pretty thorough job of hiding traces.

Mostly theories

Educated guesswork tells them the killer is most likely a man capable of inflicting up-close mortal injury with his bare hands. Also, statistically, most killers are men. He might have been in the victim's family or living with her in a relationship that led to domestic violence.

"If a family member did do her in, that would explain why she hasn't been reported missing," Callaghan said.

With the victim's social status unknown, Callaghan has theorized that she could have been from out of town and had no ties here.

But, McLarney said, the crime site was nowhere near an easy route in and out of the city for an enterprising out-of-town criminal to dispose of the body.

The site lay near a populated neighborhood with few vacant dwellings, close to where children play and men work on their cars on summer days. That might suggest the killer knew the surroundings, knew when it was safe to leave the body exposed on the ground, detectives reasoned.

Or, if the young woman was out of touch with her family and living in what detectives call "street culture" - where people meet casually at clubs but don't live, work or stay in one place for long - she may have fallen through the cracks, untracked, McLarney said.

"You'd be surprised by how many people don't know someone's dead," McLarney said.

Even though they're stumped, investigators say their hunch is this mystery - and its victim and villain - is set in Baltimore.

"Maybe the answer is staring us in the face, and we don't even know it," Callaghan said.

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