About 4:35 p.m. on March 1, 1992, a Nebraska trucker pulled into the Bitter Creek truck turnout on Interstate 80 to switch fuel tanks. Sipping coffee into the fading daylight hours, Barbara Leverton’s eyes focused on what appeared to be a couple of trash bags in the distance.
“Something about the curve,” the now 73-year-old said recently, suggested the bags were in the shape of a person.
Leverton walked to where she could look directly over the shape and saw a body lying in the snow at the bottom of the embankment. The instance predated ubiquitous cell phone usage, so Leverton radioed — to anyone — what she found. Another trucker forwarded the transmission to law enforcement.
The woman now known only as Bitter Creek Betty was on her stomach with her head turned, completely nude.
There are hundreds of women Bitter Creek Betty definitely isn’t. In the 20 years since her death, officers, forensic scientists and armchair detectives have painstakingly established this as one of the case’s certainties.
In 2011, Betty’s information was entered into a national database called NamUs. The system houses the often scattered evidence of unidentified victims from various agencies into one centralized location. It additionally holds a missing persons database that automatically checks for potential matches with unidentified remains.
As of August, NamUs has had a direct hand in reuniting 117 bodies with their identities. Despite the exponential advancements in DNA and other technologies in recent decades, Bitter Creek Betty and at least 10 other Wyoming Jane and John Does rest in a nameless purgatory.
Betty and her fellow Sweetwater County Does are buried, sans headstones, somewhere underneath a narrow swath of grass that buffers the road and the named decedents at Rest Haven Memorial Gardens cemetery.
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No protocol in Wyoming requires county law enforcement officials to report unidentified remains or missing persons to any statewide or nationwide agency. Therefore no exhaustive list of remains exists for the state. All records are maintained by the county coroners’ offices.
The Star-Tribune was able to reach 21 of the 23 coroners in Wyoming to obtain such lists, and found that there are at least 11 modern, nonprehistoric remains in the state, dating to the 1980s. Five of these remains have been entered into the NamUS network, two on a volunteer-run “Doe Network,” and two on Wyoming’s Division of Criminal Investigation website, one of which was actually found in Colorado. Only one, a Jane Doe from Sheridan, appears on all three.
Steve Holloway, deputy director at Wyoming DCI’s state crime lab said state-aided investigations are predicated on reporting from the counties. There is no protocol for them to perform state reviews, and no statute requires local agencies to ask for help.
The Wyoming Crime Lab has the only forensic laboratory in the state, he said, and works closely with several nationwide networks, such as NamUs and the University of North Texas’ Center for Human Identification.
Holloway said identifying bodies “depends quite a bit” on whether the local agencies report missing people and obtain DNA samples from relatives, “so there’s something to identify those unidentified bodies to.”
A new law may soon give local law enforcement incentives to do so.
Jan Smolinski, mother of Billy Smolinski, helped her state pass a law that requires Connecticut law enforcement to take missing adult cases seriously.
On Aug. 24, 2004, 31-year-old Billy vanished from his home in Waterbury, Conn. His family was required to wait three days to report him missing, but after filing the report, Jan Smolinski said police did next to nothing.
It took four years before his case was filed correctly in the National Crime Information Center computer index, she said, and it wasn’t until the FBI was involved that proper reports and DNA samples were filed.
She’s now looking nationally. “Billy’s Law” would provide grants to law enforcement to promote reporting to NamUS and NCIC, as well as linking the two databases.
After her ordeal, Smolinski describes agency reporting as a complete “disconnect” and feels that simply informing officers of the new technologies would facilitate sharing information.
“It’s so important to get [identifying information] into the database,” she said. “NamUs is fantastic … it’s like having a million eyes looking at it at one time.”
Billy’s Law was passed by the U.S. House in 2010 but was opposed by a senator from Oklahoma. Its funding has been decreased from $10 million to $8 million and was recently reintroduced into Congress. Smolinski said they are now looking for cosponsors, and are hoping it will be voted on again this year.
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One of NamUs and Wyoming’s most recent successes was Rosella Lovell — a former Jane Doe who was identified through facial reconstruction, dental records and a dedicated local team.
“We tried a billion different things,” said Albany Coroner Kathleen Vernon-Kubichek “It was difficult because I really cared about identifying her. I thought about it all the time.”
Once former Wyoming Crime Lab Director Sandy Mays completed the facial reconstruction last month and local media published the work, the calls started coming in.
“After hearing from all these people that it was the same person, we were able to get her dental records,” Vernon-Kubichek said. “Anybody who could have looked at them could tell it was a perfect match.”
Despite being found just north of her home in Laramie, Lovell was never connected to the body. She had no family in the area and was never reported missing.
“It’s always been a big problem for us,” said Janet Franson, the division director for NamUs in Wyoming and eight surrounding states. She currently has a case load of more than 900 missing persons and 200 unidentified remains. “There’s a nationwide law that covers juveniles … but it’s not against the law [for an adult] to run away.”
And such could have been the case for Bitter Creek Betty, Campbell County’s Gravel Gertie or Sweetwater’s Pipeline Pete.
“Those are all people, not numbers,” Franson said. “They belong to someone.”
Every day, she said, more and more coroners, medical examiners and law enforcement officials register with NamUs.
“The more entities that we get exchanging information, the more successful we are in identifying previously unidentified remains.”
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Betty should have been easy to ID.
The several days following the discovery of her body were a fuss of pokes and prods for Bitter Creek Betty. Although she was likely dumped as many as five months earlier, the frigid air and snow preserved her from standard decomposition. Her face was nearly pristine.
A coroner conducted an autopsy, only after Betty’s body thawed for 24 hours. As expected, the cause of death was labeled a homicide. She had been beaten, sexually assaulted, strangled and stabbed with an ice pick-like tool through the left nostril, piercing the sphenoid bone.
Forensic teams were able to obtain a near perfect set of fingerprints, which were submitted to a national FBI database. After the FBI said it didn’t have a match, the prints were submitted to all state-level agencies throughout North America; all came up empty.
The detectives launched an aggressive media campaign throughout the next weeks and months. They published and broadcast sketches and eventually actual photos of the victim’s face, after an artist had colored in her eyes.
“It’s just simple mathematics,” said Sweetwater County Detective Dick Blust, who worked on the case then and still does. “The more exposure we can get, the better chance we have of finding someone who recognizes her.”
Today, Blust still clings to hope that the case can be solved. His plain, black binder holds meticulous records of the hundreds of comparisons and subsequent eliminations his team has made over the years. The entries are brief but absolute.
“On 02/28/93, NCIC generated a possible matchup in the form of a missing person ... date of birth 06/64. The agency of origin for the potential matchup was listed as the Mills County, Iowa, Sheriff’s Office.
“On 03/01/93, Commander Blust contacted Sergeant Clifford Stegall of the Mills County Sheriff’s Office [Glenwood, Iowa,]; Sergeant Stegall advised that ... had been arrested on several occasions by the Denver, Colo. Police Department.
“On 03/01/93, Commander Blust contacted Senior Clerk Benita Quintana of the Denver, Colo/, Police Department., confirmed two arrests for ... and was able to eliminate her as a possible matchup through fingerprint comparison.”
Other missing persons proved even easier to eliminate as matches; they had too many tattoos, a steel rod, or had never given birth — Betty had a vertical Cesarean scar on her abdomen.
Betty’s most promising feature was her tattoo. The rose on her breast was distinct, and it not only helped eliminate several potential missing persons but led police to their only solid lead throughout the case.
After blasting that rose throughout the media, it paid off in July 1992. The rose was the work of a Tucson, Ariz., tattoo artist the tipster said, known for inking truckers and a calligraphy Kung Fu signature.
Detectives visited the artist, who proved instrumental. He remembered the woman, he said, and described her as a “leaper” — one who travels throughout the country hitching rides from various truckers. She was reasonably intelligent, Hispanic, and spoke without an accent. He was even able to describe the clothing she was wearing that day in June 1991: A brown peasant dress with yellow flowers.
The artist agreed to be hypnotized but still was unable to recall the woman’s name or any other details.
Blust said there were a number of other times he and the team were hopeful she was about to be identified. Distraught and unflinching family members of other missing persons called. Fingerprints would extend their pain and fail to identify Betty. For a few, their relatives were later found alive.
To date, no suspects have been named in the case.