Since 1972, the case of the woman with no name has haunted Prince George’s County homicide investigators.
With only skeletal remains as evidence, they didn’t know where she was from, who she was and how she wound up dead in the woods unnoticed for months before a hunter strolling through the area discovered the bones.
But a month ago, cold case detectives in the county outside of Washington caught a break in the case.
A 78-year-old prisoner in Texas had begun confessing to dozens and dozens of killings committed between 1970 and 2005, stretching across the country. As Samuel Little described each of the 90 killings he said he committed, one matched the description of the slain Jane Doe found 46 years ago in Laurel.
Detectives from Maryland traveled to Texas this fall for an interview. They hoped that one of the most prolific serial killers in history would help them learn the name of Prince George’s longest unidentified homicide victim.
Though decades had passed, it appeared Little remembered much in detail.
County detectives said Little described the signs he saw, the dirt roads he drove and the U-turn he took before precisely pinpointing for them where he left the woman’s body. The details all matched what police knew about the site.
No charges have been filed in the Maryland death.
“Talking with him, you can hear he actually gets excited about describing his homicides and describing how he strangled his victims,” Bernie Nelson, one of the county detectives, said. “He looked you right in your eye and said he couldn’t help himself. He’s a monster.”
With each detail Little unfurled during a daylong interview, Prince George’s cold case detectives became confident that they had closed Jane Doe’s case. Now, they’re hoping Little will help them learn who she was.
The FBI announced this week that Little has been linked to as many as 90 killings.
Little has been serving three-back-to-back life sentences in California for beating, strangling and killing three women. As local and federal investigators looked deeper into Little’s background, they linked him to a homicide in Texas.
A Texas Ranger went to California to interview Little in the spring of this year. During the interview, Little suggested he would talk if he could move prisons.
Little was transferred to Texas and in the course of weeks, law enforcement officials said, he unfurled details of the states he had been to and women he said he killed. FBI investigators said they have confirmed 34 killings that Little described with many more pending and some that remain uncorroborated.
Prince George’s police are in the process of getting a more specific description of the woman from Little, who has shown during interviews to have what appears to be a photographic memory, said Sgt. Greg McDonald, who interviewed Little in Texas with Nelson.
“It gives us great hope that she will be identified,” McDonald said. “It gives us a direction to look. It develops more leads to look at.”
In the description he gave first to the Texas Ranger, Little described picking a woman up from the old Greyhound Bus Station off New York Avenue in the District. Little and the woman had known each other for three days they when drove up I-295 to a wooded area, according to law enforcement accounts of what Little said. The woman suggested they pull off at Exit 197 onto a dirt road for consensual sex, Little told the Ranger, officials said, and that is where he claimed to kill and abandon her body.
After being alerted in October to details Little gave to the Texas Ranger, the Prince George’s police cold case team looked through its files and found the slaying of the Jane Doe from 1972 that “fit perfectly what he described,” McDonald said.
Little offered descriptive details of the woman that detectives had not confirmed previously: that she said she was from the Massachusetts area, had a child, and had recently celebrated getting a divorce from her husband.
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Detectives believe she was a white female in her 20s, about 5 feet 2 to 5-6 with dirty blond hair.
Cold case detectives and investigators have worked on the woman’s case regularly through the years, said county police Maj. Brian Reilly. As recently as 2014, Prince George’s County sent the unknown woman’s bones to a university in North Texas that specializes in extracting DNA but made little progress, he said.
With the new information from Little, detectives can narrow their search, look at divorce records and work with the cold case unit in Massachusetts in hopes of learning the woman’s identity.
Prince George’s police said the case Little confessed to is one of only two unidentified homicide cases in the county.
The woman’s bones were found Dec. 1, 1972, by a hunter walking through woods, but police believe she was killed about six months before.
In the interview room of a sheriff’s office in Texas, Little became excited talking about how he would strangle his victims, Nelson said.
“He actually was upset she was not found sooner because he wanted to actually see a picture of her,” Nelson said Little told them.