RAWLINS — If Janet Franson played baseball, she’d be a closer.
She finishes the job. That’s what she does.
The technician at the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification helps match DNA to missing person cases, almost entirely for those Jane and John Does who have never been identified.
“I’m just a grunt,” she says, downgrading any role she plays in solving — or closing — cases.
She’s quick to credit others, like the two forensic anthropologists, the two odontologists or even the forensic fingerprint guy she works with.
Solving missing person cases, however, often comes down to the “grunt” work Franson performs — gathering DNA samples.
“We just try to help find missing persons so we can give them back to their families,” she says.
Franson, a Laramie native who completes most of her work from her home near scenic Roundup, Mont., is working one of Rawlins’ darkest cases.
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July 4, 1974 was unremarkable in a lot of ways in Rawlins.
The weather was pretty average, historically, at least, with a high of 84.
Independence Day meant the return of fireworks after a several-year absence for Rawlins residents during the annual Renegade Roundup, a Fourth of July celebration.
The one remarkable thing about that day in Rawlins history was the
disappearance of two young women.
That was the last time friends and family saw 19-year-olds Carlene Brown and Christi Gross alive.
The two friends attended the Little Britches Rodeo, then a Rawlins fixture.
After that, they disappeared.
Gross’ skeletal remains were found nine years later on Oct. 27, 1983, in a field three miles south of Sinclair. She was killed by two heavy blows to the skull.
Carlene Brown is still missing. Her body has never been found.
Let’s be clear: No one believes Brown’s case will have a happy ending.
“We are pretty sure Carlene Brown is a homicide case,” Franson says.
“A lot of these cases are homicides without bodies,” Franson says. “When they happened, local law enforcement didn’t have any idea what to do with it. It wasn’t that they were neglectful. It’s just that they didn’t have that kind of expertise.”
Hope remains that Carlene’s case can be closed.
Franson works toward that end, searching for any Brown family left so she can get DNA samples to build a profile — the work that may someday solve the case.
“Problem is, we can’t find her family,” Franson says.
Mary Kay Albrechtson was Carlene’s best friend since age 3, she says.
In a twist of fate, Albrechtson almost joined Carlene that day.
“I was pregnant and had morning sickness, so I didn’t go with her,” she says.
Like most people with their best friends, Albrechtson reminisces about Carlene, with long-ago memories of a happy childhood stamped in her mind.
The reality of a missing friend, though, sometimes dampens those happy memories.
Albrechtson lives in Mesquite, Nev., during winters. She met someone who suggested a good medium — someone who serves as a go-between for the physical and spiritual worlds.
She went with questions about Carlene’s disappearance. There were no answers.
“I think of her often,” she says.
In fact, there’s a spot on the way to Casper that spooks Albrechtson.
“Every time we drive by that, I just get this eerie feeling, just like ‘Bleeeehh, I don’t like it at all.’”
Even if she’s sleeping, she’ll wake when she nears that spot.
“There is something out there that just gives me the creeps. I always get a feeling that maybe she’s out there. It’s just such a huge area, who knows.”
Four missing girls in seven weeks rocked Rawlins.
The cases “were just heinous,” says longtime Rawlins resident Leo Chapman, now a Carbon County commissioner. “The mood of the community was just total shock, just total disbelief. And it carried on for such a long time.”
The shocking aspect to Brown’s case is no one knows what happened.
“At the time, initially they were runaways,” local historian Rans Baker recalls. “There were stories of them being picked up on the highway. It was just the times. There were a lot of rumors.”
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Carlene was part of a fractured family.
She lived in Rawlins with her father, Carl Brown, and her brother Rick. Her father was a local businessman who owned a dry cleaning shop.
Carlene’s parents were divorced, and her mother lived in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Sometimes, as children do, Carlene pitted mother against father, and would live for a spell with either parent, Albrechtson says.
“I think at first, a lot of people thought that Carlene had taken off with someone and would be gone for awhile,” Albrechtson says. “That was typical of her to just take off and go have fun. I think maybe after a week or so, people got to realizing that she just didn’t take off. She was gone too long.”
The Browns were delightful, Chapman says.
“We didn’t know what happened. We didn’t know if hitchhikers picked her up or what. I don’t think that mystery has ever been solved,” Chapman says.
As a family man, Chapman can empathize with the feelings Carl Brown experienced.
“To never know what happened to your daughter ... well, that must have been terrible.”
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DNA is Franson’s job now, but that wasn’t always the case.
Her first love was law enforcement.
Franson started with the Lakeland, Fla., Police Department in 1979. At first, she was a dispatcher, then worked her way to a patrol officer and eventually a detective at a time when there weren’t many female detectives.
As a cop, Franson was a straight shooter. That’s how she developed her reputation, both on and off the beat.
“If you tell someone something, that’s the way it is. If you ever lie to someone, your word’s no good ever more,” Franson says. “They may not like what I said, but they knew whatever I told them was the truth.”
After 21 years with Lakeland, Franson retired. She and her husband moved back to Wyoming and built a house in a little community called Clark, 30 miles north of Cody and not far from the Montana state line.
She set about enjoying retired life — for a while, at least.
The law enforcement itch struck again, and she started volunteering for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
That organization started a cold case group, and Franson found her second calling.
“I told the guy, ‘This is where my heart is; you won’t find anybody to work any harder for you than I will,’” she says.
She worked cold cases for about 5 ½ years, then retired again, settling in Montana.
Again, retirement wouldn’t last long.
This time, almost a year ago, she went to work in her current position at the UNT Human Identification Lab. When UNT took over the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System grant, they called on Franson.
NamUs is a national center for missing persons and unidentified decedent records, Franson said. It serves medical examiners, coroners, law enforcement officials and the general public to resolve cases.
Her work there already has expanded from covering seven states to nine (Minnesota, North and South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Washington, Oregon and Alaska.)
“The NamUs project is so important. You can’t say just that because I found a body in Wyoming, it was somebody that was killed in Wyoming,” Franson says. “You can’t say that anymore. When we get the DNA, then we can prove without doubt who that person is.”
Even now, Franson is a cop at heart, searching for clues in cases with minuscule hope, trying against stacked odds to solve them.
And she still is a straight shooter.
“When people find out I’m an ex-cop, they ask me, ‘Do you watch CSI?’ Well, hell no,” Franson says. “My mom used to say truth is stranger than fiction. There is so much real stuff out there. People watch the phony, made-up stuff. In fact, it really hurts law enforcement because guess what, we can’t solve a case in 60 minutes with three commercial breaks along the way. It doesn’t work that way.”
Many, including Franson, believe Royal Russell Long abducted and killed Brown and Gross.
Long was a truck driver who, for a time in 1974, lived in the Rawlins area. He also worked various carnivals and fairs. He was convicted of kidnapping and assaulting two South Dakota girls, serving time in a Wyoming prison. He was the prime suspect in the kidnapping and murder of two Oklahoma girls in the early 1980s. He was extradited to Oklahoma and tried for that case but never convicted.
The similarities between those cases and the Rawlins case are strong, Franson says.
“Not only did he drive trucks but he killed girls all over the country. There’s no doubt in my mind there are more victims of his that we will probably never know.”
Any hope of tying Long to the missing Rawlins girls ended with his 1992 death — a reported heart attack — in prison.
“The only good thing is that I know that the son of a (gun) is in hell and he won’t hurt anyone else,” Franson said.
Albrechtson and others think the infamous Ted Bundy might have been involved in Carlene’s case.
“What’s between Colorado and Utah?” she asks rhetorically. “Interstate 80 and Rawlins.”
Bundy was a rapist, kidnapper and serial killer who assaulted and murdered many young women and girls during the 1970s, in Utah and Colorado among other states. He confessed shortly before his execution to 30 homicides between 1974 and 1978; the true total remains unknown, and could be much higher.
He was never tied to the missing Rawlins girls.
Safety in small-town America is a myth, Franson says.
“It’s just really sad. These perverts are everywhere. You expect something like that to come from a big city. It’s just as likely to happen here as anywhere in this country. Bad guys go anywhere.”
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For Franson, it’s much more than just a job.
“You just don’t like to see the bad guys get away with murder.”
In May 1973, Carlene Brown was featured in the Daily Times graduation section.
She was a hard worker who was employed at Model Cleaners. She wanted to get a job for the summer, preferably doing “outdoor work.” Her plans for college were undecided.
In the Rawlins High School yearbook that same year, her senior picture outlined a successful high school career. She was in the band, played various sports, was on the debate team, participated in pep club and was a thespian.
Carlene never got to pursue those dreams and activities or even consider college, instead meeting a fate no one deserves, her life likely cut short in unimaginable ways.
Franson wants to be a final advocate for Carlene and put her case to rest.
Finding relatives, however, has proven tricky, Franson says.
It turns out Carlene and her brother were adopted, Albrechtson says.
Her adoptive father, Carl Brown, died in 1995. Her adoptive mother, Catherine T. Goutsch, didn’t live in Rawlins when Carlene disappeared. She died in 1990.
Rick Brown, the adopted brother, died in Laramie, Albrechtson says.
That leaves Franson with the tedious task of tracking down Carlene’s birth family — which no one really knows anything about.
Modern technology has helped in a lot of cases, just not this one — yet.
“What I’m hoping is, someone out there knows if there are living relatives. We have to get some names so I can track people down,” Franson says.
For now, Franson waits: it’s the bottom of the eighth, and she wants her chance to close out the game.
“That’s really all that you can do. You just try to gather up as much information as you can,” she says. “Get it in the computer to where at some point in time when a body shows up, you compare physical attributes, you compare dental records, and you can make a match.”
Patience, for Franson, is key.
“One of these days, whenever she is found, we’ll get her identified.”