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.