Pollen analysis helps renew interest in 1976 'Woodlawn Jane Doe' case

Her body was wrapped in a white sheet, her hands bound behind her back with rope, and dumped near a cemetery in Woodlawn.

Four decades later, no one has identified the young woman found in September 1976. But Baltimore County detectives say they've received a potential break in the case of the "Woodlawn Jane Doe:" new forensic evidence culled from microscopic grains of pollen that clung to her clothing has bolstered a theory that she came from the Boston area.


Authorities say the blend of cedar and mountain hemlock pollen, identified by a scientist with U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, suggest a connection to the Arnold Arboretum in Boston.

The link has generated renewed attention to the case.


"There are people out there going through yearbooks from the high schools in Boston," said county Detective David Jacoby, the lead investigator on the case.

Pollen testing is not widely used in U.S. criminal investigations. But the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children — which has assisted county police in the Woodlawn Jane Doe case — sees great potential in the science for helping to generate leads in cases of unidentified victims.

"It can give us a really good clue as to where the child spent time before they were found deceased," said Carol Schweitzer, senior forensic case specialist at the national center.

Pollen provided clues in the highly publicized 2015 case of "Baby Doe," the girl whose body was found in a trash bag on Deer Island in Boston Harbor. The analysis suggested the girl was local.

She was ultimately identified as 2-year-old Bella Bond of Dorchester. Her mother and her mother's boyfriend have been charged in her death.

In most homicide cases, detectives have family and friends of a victim to interview to try to develop a motive and possible suspects. When they can't identify the victim, that's impossible.

"Who she might be — that's the hardest part," said Jacoby, a longtime homicide detective who now focuses on cold cases.

A woman on her way to church on Sept.12, 1976, spotted a van near the Lorraine Park Cemetery. Officers found the female victim wearing beige jeans, a white short-sleeved shirt and a rawhide necklace. Believed to have been in her late teens or 20s, she was about 5-foot-8, weighed 159 pounds, and had brown hair and brown eyes.

Jane Doe was strangled and the drug chlorpromazine, an anti-psychotic medication, was found in her system. Police believe she may have been sexually assaulted.

The Baltimore Sun published a sketch of her face. Tips poured in.

"Police were checking into a call they received late Tuesday night from a woman who said a published sketch of the dead woman resembled a relative she had not seen for several months," The Sun reported four days after the body was found.

But that lead didn't pan out. The missing relative "turned out to be alive and well," a detective told The Sun a few days later. Others were also unfounded.


More recently, Jacoby has received tips from places as far as Manitoba and Los Angeles.

"People are intrigued by these types of crimes," he said.

Clues found at the scene have long pointed to Massachusetts. The type of cloth seed bag pulled over the victim's head was sold only in Massachusetts. A key in her pocket was made by ILCO in Fitchburg, Mass. A crude tattoo of the letters "JP" could signify the Boston neighborhood of Jamaica Plain.

So detectives already believed there was a Boston connection, and the pollen hit reinforced their theory.

"It's huge," Jacoby said.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children helped facilitate the pollen testing, which was performed by Andrew Laurence of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, one of only about five forensic palynologists in the world.

Laurence vacuumed the victim's clothing to draw the grains out for examination.

Pollen sticks to people's clothing, and can reveal where they spent time before their death, Laurence said.

"Think of it like a fingerprint for an area," he said. "No two locations are identical."

Certain blends of pollen may suggest an urban area, where plants such as dandelions grow through the cracks of sidewalks.

The unique proportions in a pollen sample can help investigators narrow their search for answers to a particular region. In the Woodlawn case, Laurence found a blend of cedar and mountain hemlock.

Cedar is native to the Middle East, parts of North Africa and the Island of Cyprus. Imported to the United States for lumber in the 1800s, it is now found on the East Coast.

Mountain hemlock is native to the Western United States. On the East Coast, it's grown only in parks, arboretums and botanical gardens.

Cedar and mountain hemlock pollen are found together in only two places: the New York Botanical Garden and the Arnold Arboretum, which straddles the Boston neighborhoods of Jamaica Plain and Roslindale.

Given the other connections to Massachusetts, detectives believe the pollen came from Boston.

The collection at the Arnold Arboretum has included mountain hemlock since about 1967, according to Detective John Cronin of the Boston Police Department's cold-case homicide squad.

Cronin has helped Jacoby with the case. The pair have visited the arboretum together to interview the curator and employees.

Forensic pollen analysis was pioneered in Austria in the 1950s. It is used routinely in criminal investigations in the United Kingdom and New Zealand, but not much in the United States.

"It just doesn't have the attention like other sciences do," Laurence said. "Hopefully, as it becomes more widely known, people will start wanting to use it more."

News of the pollen testing has drawn attention from a Boston television station and "Crime Watch Daily," a national program.

Police received a tip last year that Jane Doe and her family had moved from Puerto Rico to the Hyde Square section of Jamaica Plain, and that the children attended a Catholic school.

Police worked with the Archdiocese of Boston during the holidays to distribute fliers in churches, in the hope that someone might recognize Jane Doe, Jacoby said. Detectives also hit the streets in Hyde Square.

"We canvassed the whole neighborhood, handing out fliers to all the stores," Cronin said.

Jacoby said detectives are still trying.

"It's very much an ongoing investigation," he said.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children hosted a case review last week for county police. The center has also worked to circulate a forensic reconstruction of Jane Doe's face on social media.

"What our goal is now is to have someone recognize her," Schweitzer said. "We want to make sure we reach a very wide area."

People with information about a case sometimes decide to speak after decades, Jacoby said. Tipsters may hold a tiny detail that proves to be crucial.

"We'll listen to anything," Jacoby said. "Don't assume that we know."


Detectives ask anyone with information about Woodlawn Jane Doe to contact Baltimore County Police at 410-307-2020 or the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children at 1-800-THELOST (1-800-846-5678).


Baltimore Sun librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.


Recommended on Baltimore Sun