The Enduring Mystery of Pennsylvania's Twin Tunnels and the 'Suitcase Jane Doe'

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On a warm July day in 1995, a fisherman cast his line into the waters of Brandywine Creek, about 30 miles west of Philadelphia, and settled in for what he probably hoped would be a relaxing few hours. But it wasn't long before he realized something was off—a foul stench was saturating the air. The fisherman traced the odor to a green garbage bag half-submerged in a muddy area near the creek. When he cut it open, he made the worst possible kind of discovery.

Inside the bag was a maroon suitcase, and inside the suitcase was the top half of a dead woman. The body was naked except for a bloodstained bra, and bruised near the right eye and on the back. Packed around the lifeless corpse were the remnants of the life the dead woman might once have lived: a denim blouse, a headband, a quilt, and bloody sheets.

The fisherman quickly summoned the police, who soon began delving into what has become one of Pennsylvania's most frustrating cold cases.

THE TWIN TUNNELS

It was not lost on anyone—not the police officers who soon arrived, nor the fisherman who found the body—that the creek was in the shadow of the Twin Tunnels. Just the mention of these tunnels can make the blood of Chester County locals run cold. Built to accommodate the railroad tracks running above, they're in a lonely but picturesque area just a few miles east of central Downingtown, in a spot frequented by drunk teenagers and urban explorers looking for a good scare. Two of the graffitied, gray-brick tunnels have been abandoned for decades, while one carries minimal traffic. Part of the reason the abandoned tunnels are so eerie is that they bend, so that when you enter at one end the exit isn't visible; it's all just claustrophobic darkness.

The other reason the tunnels have such a dark reputation are the legends. For years, stories about the Twin Tunnels have circulated among locals. One says that a distraught young woman hanged herself in one of the tunnels while holding her baby—she died when the rope snapped her neck, and her infant plummeted to its death on the hard surface below. Some claim to have seen the mother's body swinging in the darkness, or heard her child's cries echoing throughout the underpass. Another piece of local folklore insists that a man shrouded in darkness roams the tunnels aimlessly. The phantom is said to be related either to a father who beat his son to death and hid his battered body in the tunnels, or an Irish railroad worker who died in an accident when the tunnels were under construction.

The discovery of the murdered woman in the suitcase seemed to throw the mythology of the tunnels into stark relief, especially because she seemed to be such a mystery. A forensic investigation established the basics: She had been dead for between three and seven days, was between 17 and 40 years old, white or Hispanic, about 5 feet 3 inches tall, and roughly 130 pounds. There was no sign of sexual assault. Her legs appeared to have been severed after she was killed, and her death seemed to have taken place in a different location from the creek. But she had no tattoos or visible scars, and there was no identification (such as a driver’s license) with the body. Her fingerprints did not match any found in databases around the country. The summer heat and water of the creek had accelerated her decomposition, making her features difficult to identify. There were no leads to go on.

Seven months after the fisherman's disturbing discovery, another piece of the puzzle emerged. In January 1996, a jogger stumbled upon the victim’s severed legs nearly 50 miles away from Brandywine Creek. Like the head and torso, they had been wrapped in garbage bags, and there was also another trash bag nearby containing women’s and girls' clothing. Medical examiners weren’t able to match the legs and torso with DNA evidence due to the decomposition, but the severed right leg bone fit perfectly into the hip of the torso. Investigators were convinced the legs belonged to the woman the press would begin calling Suitcase Jane Doe.

AN ENDLESS JOURNEY

Law enforcement professionals who have worked on the case say it's among the most frustrating of their careers. "These are cases that bother us because we can't even begin to investigate why they're dead until we figure out who they are," police corporal Patrick Quigley, one of the original investigators, told the Daily Local News of Chester County in 2011. Part of the problem, Quigley said, is that "Adults have a right to disappear ... people walk away all of the time without it being suspicious."

And in some cases, people may not have close family or friends who would report them missing. America’s Most Wanted producer David Braxton told the Philadelphia Inquirer: “[Jane Doe cases] slip through the cracks because you don't have that advocate, that family member to keep the case alive ... and it is hard from a storytelling and crime-solving standpoint because you have few clues."

That doesn't mean the police haven't tried. In 1997, they commissioned Frank Bender, a forensic sculptor from Philadelphia, to create a clay reconstruction of the murdered woman's face. Bender had been sculpting busts of criminals and victims since 1976; his most famous creation is a sculpture of John List, who murdered his family in 1971 and was captured in 1989 after his story—and Bender’s likeness of him—aired on America’s Most Wanted. By commissioning an image of Suitcase Jane Doe, police hoped to spark the public’s interest yet again.

While the police received calls from all over the world after a photograph of Bender’s Suitcase Jane Doe bust ran in several publications, none of the information led anywhere promising.

Over the past 23 years, police have appealed to the public repeatedly for information. The case was even featured twice on America’s Most Wanted. Investigators say that all tips have been followed up on, but they haven’t produced any solid leads. Around 2000, there was a glimmer of hope when the victim's dental records seemed to be a possible match for a missing woman from Virginia, but the physical descriptions of the two women didn't add up.

REASON TO BELIEVE

As disheartening as the case has been, for the authorities working on it, there will always be a reason to hope for a resolution. Cold cases are sometimes solved decades later: In September 2018, a Jane Doe found in Tennessee in 1985 was identified as Tina Marie McKenney Farmer, a woman who had been missing from Indiana since 1984. The break in the case happened after investigators stumbled across a blog post about Farmer, contacted her family, and ran DNA and fingerprint tests. (While her identity was established, the question of who killed Farmer and why remains a mystery.)

There's also always the possibility that forensic genealogy—which has solved crimes thanks to DNA entered into genealogical databases, as happened with the Golden State Killer—may one day provide a break in the case. (In April 2018, the body of a young woman found in an Ohio ditch in 1981, known as "Buckskin Girl" for her distinctive fringed jacket, was identified in four hours thanks to genetic testing.) It all depends on whether the right kind of sleuth decides to tackle the mystery.

For now, the murdered woman's fingerprints, DNA, and dental records have been added to national and international databases, and there's always a chance investigators will get a hit matching another crime scene or criminal.

In the meantime, a lot of questions remain unanswered in Chester County. Who was the woman who was dismembered and discarded along a lonely creek bed? Why did her killer, or killers, dump her body near the Twin Tunnels? Were they taking advantage of the disturbing reputation of the place, thinking no one would investigate a half-submerged suitcase?

Regardless of the intentions, the crime's many mysteries have only added to the area's chilling associations—a legacy that will likely linger even if Suitcase Jane Doe can one day be identified.

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BartekSzewczyk/iStock via Getty Images

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The 25 Greatest Heist Movies of All Time

Steve McQueen stars in The Thomas Crown Affair (1968).
Steve McQueen stars in The Thomas Crown Affair (1968).
MGM Home Entertainment

In the vast landscape of crime cinema—from movies about murder investigations to small-time crooks to gangster pictures—the heist movie holds a special place in the heart of many fans. There's something about watching all of that planning come together, seeing the often clashing personalities of the characters work side-by-side, and even sometimes laughing or crying as it falls apart, that holds a special fascination. Perhaps because there's a certain satisfaction to seeing all the pieces click into place that more chaotic crime films just can't give you.

In the long history of crime cinema, there have been dozens of heist films ranging in size from small jobs to massive capers, but only a select few stand out as the perfect combination of planning and execution, of character chemistry and filmmaking intricacy. With those factors in mind, we took a look back at the long history of heist films and picked 25 of our very favorites (presented here in chronological order).

1. The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

Billed as a story of "the city under the city," John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle is the godfather of all modern heist films, and it's easy to see how the various hallmarks of the genre grew out of this gritty, taut caper. It's got a mastermind fresh out of prison, a down-on-his-luck hood looking to turn his life around, and a climactic heist sequence where everything starts to unravel. It's a foundational document in the subgenre, and still holds up as a tense noir masterpiece.

2. Rififi (1955)

After he was blacklisted in his home country, American director Jules Dassin went to France and produced what many people still consider to be the finest heist film ever made. Rififi bears many marks of influence from The Asphalt Jungle, but takes things into more stylized territory, particularly when it comes to the centerpiece heist. It unfolds completely free of dialogue, but the film has set it up so well that the silence is enough to keep you on the edge of your seat. It even features the crooks descending on their target from above, something numerous later heist films (including Dassin's Topkapi) would embrace.

3. The Ladykillers (1955)

Part of the appeal of heist films has always been the number of ways in which the plan can go wrong, whether it's in the execution or in the clash of personalities within the gang of criminals. The Ladykillers, one of the most distinctly British crime films ever made, has a bit of both. It features a wickedly iconic performance from Alec Guinness, an essential turn from Peter Sellers, and a final act that devolves in pure impish mayhem when the various crooks all turn on each other as their elderly landlady looks on. (If the title sounds familiar, it might be because Joel and Ethan Coen remade it with Tom Hanks in 2004.)

4. The Killing (1956)

The best heist filmmakers are often the most intricate thinkers, which means it's no surprise that Stanley Kubrick absolutely nailed his turn at the subgenre. The story of a tightly orchestrated racetrack robbery, The Killing unfolds in a somewhat nonlinear style, as Kubrick shows you one character's role, then rewinds the timeline a bit to show you what another character was doing at the exact same time. It's a risky structure, but it pays off spectacularly in Kubrick's hands, and it all builds to one of the most beautifully ironic endings in crime cinema history.

5. Bob le Flambeur (1956)

Jean-Pierre Melville's Bob le flambeur is another of those classic '50s heist films that's still influencing the subgenre in a major way today. A sleek, incredibly stylish, and sexy film about an aging gambler who hatches a plan to rob a casino, the film is a masterclass in balancing the intricate setup of the central heist with the often tumultuous lives of its characters. The arc of the title character (Roger Duchesne) in particular builds in a truly spectacular way, until the final minutes are positively quaking with tension.

6. The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)

If you wanted to make a cool movie in the 1960s, casting Steve McQueen got you halfway to where you wanted to be. The Thomas Crown Affair stars McQueen as a bored millionaire who can basically do whatever he wants with his time, and what he wants is to stage extremely intricate robberies just to see if he can. Then along comes Faye Dunaway, and Crown's plans get just a little more complicated. While John McTiernan's 1999 remake is fun in its own right, it's hard to touch the pure effortless cool of the original.

7. The Italian Job (1969)

Ideally, you want a heist film that can pull out of some kind of spectacular caper setpiece while also making you care about the characters pulling said caper off through some combination of a great script and great chemistry. Some films do one better than the other, but The Italian Job manages to excel at both. Even now, more than 50 years after its release, it stands as one of the funniest films on this list. And while the Mini Cooper car chase remains an iconic piece of heist movie history, the final scene on the bus is almost as impressive.

8. The Sting (1973)

Most heist films are about a group of guys who are going somewhere to get something, whether it's a bank or a casino or a fancy house. The Sting, anchored by the pure magic that is the Paul Newman/Robert Redford team-up, flips that and tells a story about two con artists who make the heist come to them. It's got all the hallmarks of a great heist picture, from the assembly of the team to the planning to the teasing out of the relationship with the target, but it all unfolds with an amusing sense of reversal. By the final scene, you're just as giddy that it all came together as the characters are.

9. Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

Some heist films spend most of their time setting up the caper, while others prefer to leap into it right at the beginning. No matter where they start, there's usually a clear indication that there was a plan. Dog Day Afternoon, Sidney Lumet's white-hot bank robbery picture starring Al Pacino in what is arguably his best performance, makes it clear that the crooks at the center of the story did have a plan. It was just a plan with a whole lot of flaws, and the very human response to how all of those flaws reveal themselves throughout the film makes for one of the most raw displays of empathy in crime cinema history.

10. Blue Collar (1978)

After making a name for himself as a writer with films like Taxi Driver, Paul Schrader chose this story of down-on-their-luck auto workers who plot to rob their union's safe as his directorial debut. It remains, even today, a searing portrait of income inequality, middle class pain, and the way those with power manipulate the powerless into thinking they might be able to get some of their own. Yaphet Kotto, Harvey Keitel, and Richard Pryor all turn in powerful performances, and the whole film is a masterclass in how to use the hook of a heist plot to say something bigger.

11. Thief (1981)

Michael Mann remains one of crime cinema's greatest living practitioners, and he came out of the gate swinging in the subgenre with his directorial debut. Thief is the story of a safecracker (James Caan in top form) who longs for a fulfilling life beyond criminal pursuits after he gets out of prison. Of course, in classic crime cinema fashion, he finds that having it all isn't as within reach as he'd like. Thief features some of the best scenes of fiery, authentic safe-cracking in cinema, and remains one of the highlights of both Mann and Caan's stellar careers.

12. Die Hard (1988)

Whether or not Die Hard is a Christmas movie is still up for debate. What's not up for debate is its place in the pantheon of gripping, high-octane heist films. While it's best remembered for its action setpieces that take place around the heist, the inciting incident of John McTiernan's legendary film is indeed Hans Gruber and crew plotting to steal a corporation's stash of bearer bonds under the guise of a terrorist hostage situation. It's got everything you want from a great heist, from manipulating law enforcement to drilling a safe to an amazing mastermind at the head of it all. They just didn't count on a barefoot New York cop who's really into Roy Rogers to come and steal their thunder.

13. Reservoir Dogs (1992)

Quentin Tarantino has hyped his debut film in countless interviews as a heist film where you never see the actual heist, and it's true that Reservoir Dogs never shows us exactly what happened during the planned diamond robbery at the heart of the story. So why is it on this list? Because, through a combination of careful character work, planning sequences, and absolute mayhem as everything goes wrong, Tarantino allows us to piece the heist together in our heads. By the end we feel like we were there with the characters even if we weren't.

14. Heat (1995)

At two hours and 50 minutes long, Michael Mann's Heat is the very definition of an epic crime film, and from the outside looking in it seems so massive that you might wonder what the filmmaker is possibly filling it with. Once that opening armored car robbery hits, though, the film moves at such a blistering pace that we're left wishing it was even longer. The film is best remembered now as the first time Robert De Niro and Al Pacino shared the screen, but it should be just as remembered for one of the greatest shootout sequences in film history.

15. Bottle Rocket (1996)

Wes Anderson's debut feature is his take on "what if a group of total weirdos and idiots tried to pull a heist," with everything the Wes Anderson style implies about that—and the result is an unforgettably quirky entry in the subgenre. The practice heist in which the main characters (played by Owen and Luke Wilson) steal from a predetermined list of items within one of their family homes, remains a classic Wes Anderson moment.

16. Out of Sight (1998)

Before he made a trilogy of stylish, impossibly star-packed heist films in the 2000s, Steven Soderbergh turned his eye for genre cinema to this adaptation of Elmore Leonard's novel of the same name, about a U.S. Marshal's budding romance with a bank robber she just happens to meet as he's escaping prison. George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez bring the sex appeal, Don Cheadle and Steve Zahn bring the comedy, and Soderbergh brings his eye for setups and payoffs to one of the best crime films of the 1990s.

17. Sexy Beast (2000)

At its core, Sexy Beast is less about a heist than it is about a retired criminal who can't shake the demons of his past, which arrive on his doorstep in the form of a sociopathic colleague (Ben Kingsley at the peak of his powers) who demands he do one more job for him. Through this lens of regret and fear and tension, director Jonathan Glazer also manages to deliver one of the most spectacular heist setpieces of all time, as a crew breaks into a vault by drilling through the wall of a filled swimming pool.

18. Ocean's Eleven (2001)

Steven Soderbergh is one of those directors who feels as much like a perpetual student of film as he is a filmmaker, so it makes sense that if he was going to make a star-filled heist film on the scale of Ocean's Eleven, he'd try to make the ultimate heist movie. While the sheer amount of stuff going on in Ocean's Eleven might mean it doesn't always succeed in certain respects like its heist cinema ancestors, the film still plays today as an endlessly entertaining, utterly stylish, and effortlessly witty take on the subgenre that has just about everything you could ever want in a heist film.

19. Inside Man (2006)

Spike Lee's Inside Man is a film that promised in its trailers to show us "the perfect bank robbery," and it hooks us immediately by throwing us right into things with very little prologue or sense of a plan. The plan for this perfect robbery is only revealed to the audience at the same speed as it's revealed to the NYPD detective (Denzel Washington) and the secretive fixer (Jodie Foster) who are watching it unfold from the outside as the robbery's mastermind (Clive Owen) moves forward with an agenda we can't see coming. Lee pushes the film at a breathless pace, delivering twist after twist with the grace of a master, until we finally see the whole game board.

20. The Town (2010)

What Heat was for Los Angeles, Ben Affleck's The Town is for Boston. Affleck clearly learned a lot of his tricks from Mann, but what's most striking about The Town—aside from its structural similarities to Heat—is the way that Affleck and company take that sensibility then twist it to defy our expectations. What starts with a gloriously tense opening robbery setpiece and builds to a big last job ultimately becomes a standoff not between a cop and a crook who respect each other, but between two best friends who are supposed to be on the same side, each longing for their own version of freedom.

21. Fast Five (2011)

The Fast & Furious films began as a solid street racing franchise before becoming globe-hopping action spectaculars that defy all laws of motion and speed. Fast Five is the pivot point between those two eras of the franchise, and the one that leans most heavily on heist movie conventions. As Dominic Toretto and his crew plot to steal a drug lord's safe and a relentless DSS agent (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, in his first appearance in the series) tries to bring them down, the film builds and builds in its ambition. By the end, a giant safe is racing through the streets of Rio, and from that daring heist on the franchise would never be the same.

22. Hell or High Water (2016)

There are a lot of films out there (Arthur Penn's brilliant Bonnie and Clyde among them) that stage a series of bank robberies in an effort to set up some kind of fiery last stand between the robbers and law enforcement, but few of them unfold with the intricacy of Hell or High Water. Chris Pine and Ben Foster shine as two brothers who've planned a high-stakes series of bank robberies, complete with a money-laundering scheme, to save their family's land. The plan is elegant in its simplicity, but grows increasingly complicated as a wise Texas Ranger (Jeff Bridges) closes in. It all builds to one of the most emotional climaxes of any film on this list.

23. Baby Driver (2017)

You'd think a film that's ostensibly about the getaway driver wouldn't necessarily lean as heavily on the heist elements, but Edgar Wright's clever car chase musical Baby Driver manages to find room for them in between all the driving. Wright's hero, Baby (Ansel Elgort), is a young man who is gifted behind the wheel yet just wants to escape the criminal life. But what's supposed to be his last job puts him in deeper than he's ever been before. Come for the car chases, stay for the complexity of the setup and the fallout that heist movie fans crave.

24. Logan Lucky (2017)

Yes, Steven Soderbergh is on this list three times. And yes, he deserves it. After completing his Ocean's trilogy and playing in various other subgenres for a while, Soderbergh returned to heist pictures with this hilarious story of two brothers who try to turn their family's luck around by robbing Charlotte Motor Speedway in the middle of a busy race weekend. The accents alone—particular Daniel Craig's turn as an explosives expert named "Joe Bang"—are worth the price of admission, but the heist itself is also every bit as satisfying and intricate as anything Danny Ocean's crew ever pulled off.

25. Widows (2018)

After the success of 12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen could have made a lot of different movies. What he chose was a team-up with Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn to tell the story of a group of women driven to desperation after the deaths of their criminal husbands. Together they hatch a plan to rob a local corrupt politician based on an idea one of their husband's left behind, and in so doing find their own power. What's perhaps most striking about Widows is that it could have worked as a very straightforward heist film. In McQueen and Flynn's hands, though, it becomes a twist-filled ensemble drama about so much more than planning and executing a job.