For 47 years, she was a pile of nameless ashes. How 2 Alabama investigators changed that

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In May 1976, two boys were fishing in Sessions Creek in Grand Bay, not far from the Alabama-Mississippi state line, when they stumbled across a body. Deputies were called to the scene and identified the remains as an older female. She had been shot in the back of the head. Her hands were missing, as were her dentures. She had no ID and no one ever came looking for her.

With no idea who she was, nor who killed her, the body was given to the Anatomic Donations Program at the University of South Alabama. She was cremated and her ashes placed in a mass grave — another “Jane Doe” assigned to the catacombs of the forgotten. Before they handed over her body to the school, investigators decided to make a ceramic mold of the woman’s denture-less gums.

No one knows exactly why they made the mold — perhaps to one day match it with the woman’s missing dentures, were they to ever turn up. But they didn’t, and so the case was cold and forgotten, with what little evidence taken from the case buried deep in the recesses of the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office.

That changed in 2014, when deputy J.T. Thornton began researching cold cases. Thornton came across the file of the “Jane Doe” from Sessions Creek 38 years earlier. He also came across another Jane Doe also found in Grand Bay in 1976.Thornton got a break on the second Jane Doe — ultimately identifying the woman as Mary Ann Perez, a New Orleans woman whose case had been profiled in a 1991 episode of “Unsolved Mysteries.”

With Perez identified, Thornton returned his attention to the first Jane Doe. Thornton learned of a Mississippi man named Henderson James Williams, who in 1994 had been convicted of killing his mother, whose body was found in water off Hall Road in Grand Bay. Williams’ mother’s hands were cut off and dentures removed.

He was sentenced to life in Parchman State Penitentiary in Mississippi and died there in 2008.“I exhausted every possible lead I could find to put Henderson James Williams with this woman,” Thornton said in an interview with this week. “He was dead, so I couldn’t interview him and there was some uncertainty about where he lived.”

But the victimology — the hands cut off, the missing dentures, the location where the body was dumped — were nearly identical between Williams’ mother and Thornton’s Jane Doe. Thornton also learned that Williams had killed someone else in Newport News, Va., in 1973, but only spent 28 days in jail.

“I called up there (Virginia) to that agency and they couldn’t find anything from that case file,” Thornton said. “They said it was likely lost in a flood they had a few years before I started digging into it.”

Regardless, Thornton at this point was convinced Williams was the one who killed the Jane Doe from Sessions Creek. “There’s no doubt in my mind,” he says. But he was no closer to discovering the woman’s identity.Fast forward to 2021, with advances in DNA testing and forensic pathology, Thornton, now aided by genealogy analyst Olivia McCarter, began digging again.

One day, while continuing to search for more evidence, Thornton came across an odd find — a ceramic dental mold, now 45 years old, taken from his Jane Doe.

The idea of viable genetic material on the mold was far-fetched, particularly given the time period in which it was taken. “In 1976, they didn’t wear gloves, so I really expected it to have a lot of contamination from male DNA,” McCarter said, “because back then there were no female CSIs (crime scene investigators) or techs, according to the records.

” There was what appeared to be dead skin embedded in the mold, but it had been through so many people’s hands and in storage for nearly a half a century, so to say McCarter and Thornton weren’t optimistic would be an understatement.“The lab told me it was a longshot, but it was worth a try,” McCarter said. “I figured this was our last chance to solve the case, this is the only evidence we have.”

What happened from there, she said, was like winning the DNA lottery. In December of last year, McCarter sent the old dental molds to Intermountain Forensics in Salt Lake City, Utah to conduct DNA testing. The lab used a MVAC DNA collection device to collect any DNA which might have remained on the mold.

“Astonishingly, the sample yielded enough DNA to proceed with further testing,” according to the lab, which was then able to conduct whole-genome sequencing which produced enough data to upload to a genetic genealogy site. McCarter got the results back earlier this year. “It was completely unexpected,” she said. “It worked better than I ever anticipated.

There was zero contamination and was 100 percent female DNA. ” The testing at Intermountain Forensics provided enough data for McCarter and her team of five investigators at Moxxy Forensic Investigations to begin working on the genealogy of their Jane Doe. But there was still a long way to go to identify her.

“The genealogy was really tough,” McCarter said “Our highest match was a second cousin, twice removed, which means his grandparents shared great-grandparents with our Jane Doe. That’s seven generations removed. ”For 19 days — days McCarter called “19 days of hell” — she and her team continued their work. Finally, working one night about 2 a.m., they found someone.

“I came across a woman named Ada Fritz,” McCarter said. “She was a perfect fit in our tree. She had no proof of life after 1976. You’d expected a Social Security death index or something like that, but it looked like she just disappeared. They learned Ada Fritz had no children and her parents were deceased, as was her only sibling, a brother who died in the 1990s. That brother had a son, now in his 70s, still in California.

Thornton and McCarter reached out to the Orange County (Calif.) Sheriff’s Office and asked if they would go to the man’s home, ask for a DNA swab and show him a post-mortem photo of their Jane Doe. “He immediately looked at the photo and said yes, that’s my aunt,” McCarter said. “Then the DNA confirmed it even more that his aunt was our Jane Doe.” But a Jane Doe no more.

Ada Elizabeth Fritz was born Sept. 22, 1914, in Sheridan, Wyo., making her 61 at the time of her death. Her last known place of residence was Batesville, Ark. There are questions which remain, likely to never be answered.

If Williams did kill Fritz, why did he do it? What was she was doing on the Gulf Coast (Thornton believes Williams killed her in Mississippi and then drove her body to Grand Bay)? But, Fritz is now known and remembered, thanks to Thornton, McCarter and a team of investigators, researchers and scientists. And an old dental mold.

“I sure have no idea why they’d put plaster in someone’s mouth when they don’t have any teeth,” Thornton said, “but I’m sure glad they did.”

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