Twenty-three years after her body was found in the Spokane River, a victim’s identity is still unknown
Detectives call her “Millie.” They don’t know her real name.
The woman’s dismembered body was discovered near the T.J. Meenach Bridge in 1984. A month later, her severed hand was found in a nearby neighborhood. In 1998, her skull was unearthed on the lower South Hill. Her feet have not been found.
Spokane police detectives, a North Idaho forensic artist, a Spokane County medical examiner’s office investigator and others have spent countless hours trying to identify the woman and solve her murder.
“Sometimes I sit at home at 2 a.m. searching the Internet,” said Lorrie Hegewald, a Spokane County medical examiner’s office investigator. “Someone has to be missing her.”
The homicide is one of more than two dozen murders unsolved by Spokane police since the 1980s.
Millie is one of 22 unidentified bodies found in Spokane County since 1960, eight of which were pulled from Spokane’s waterways. She is the only woman.
“There’s a lot of missing females, but typically they are reported missing,” Hegewald said.
If Millie had gone missing from the area, investigators would likely have been able to identify her, said Detective Don Giese, one of four investigators who have worked on the case. She’s probably from outside the state. Perhaps she and her killer were driving through town.
What’s more, “whoever killed Millie went to such extremes to make sure we couldn’t identify her that if we ever figure out who she is, we’re fairly certain we can figure out who killed her,” Giese said. “The killer was likely closely affiliated to her, and whoever knows her knows the killer, too.”
Two young men were fishing by the T.J. Meenach Bridge on June 20, 1984, when they discovered a woman’s body in the Spokane River.
She was missing her hands, feet and head. Police say she was likely dismembered by an ax, a hatchet or a knife.
It is “extremely unusual” in murder cases for a body to have been dismembered, said Spokane police Sgt. Joe Peterson.
The naked body had been in the water for several days – possibly weeks, officials said. Pinpointing the timeline is difficult.
The coroner noted the water temperature was 45 degrees and thought the body had been in the water for 48 hours or less, said Spokane County Medical Examiner Dr. Sally Aiken. When Aiken reviewed the coroner’s records, however, she determined the time was much longer; bodies don’t decompose quickly in low temperatures.
Identifying marks included two small moles on the front of the neck, a faint scar over the right knee, a faint, quarter-inch scar on the right kneecap, and a diagonal, 3 1/2-inch scar on the left arm.
Officials determined the woman was 20 to 35 years old and about 5 feet 7 inches tall. She had a medium build and blond body hair.
Forensic experts determined she’d had at least one baby.
Giese said investigators found no other murders at the time matched the method of Millie’s.
About a month after the body was discovered, a dog brought home the woman’s decomposing left hand to a house in the Rimrock area near the bridge, police said. The hand was sent to the FBI in Washington, D.C., where officials retrieved fingerprints.
Then on April 19, 1998, a woman walking a dog discovered a human skull with two vertebrae still attached in a vacant lot at Seventh Avenue and Sherman Street. The spot had been a neighborhood dumping site for years. After the skull was found, the lot was excavated, but no other remains or evidence were found.
At that time, the case was assigned to Giese, who took the skull to a forensic anthropologist in Western Washington.
His daughter, a fifth-grader at the time, accompanied him. Along the way, the two stayed in a motel. While Giese and his daughter were watching TV, his little girl said: “Since we have another person in the room, we should name her. Let’s call her ‘ Millie.’ “
Since then, when detectives discuss the murder, it’s the Millie case, Giese said.
To aid the anthropologist’s work, officials exhumed the body discovered 14 years earlier, which had been buried at Fairmount Cemetery in Spokane. They extracted a tissue sample and, through DNA analysis, determined the body and the skull were a match, Giese said.
Millie’s information was submitted to international, national and state databases. The FBI is now working further on the DNA, so Millie’s profile can be added to a Canadian missing persons database.
If any family members come forward, Millie’s DNA profile will be used to prove a connection. In 2004, for example, a woman from Australia’s New South Wales called Giese because she thought Millie might be her missing daughter. A DNA comparison showed she wasn’t related.
Millie’s skull was examined by a forensic dentist, who worked up a profile and determined she’d recently had dental work.
Tape found wrapped around one of Millie’s arms was sent to the Washington State Patrol Crime Lab about a year ago, Giese said. Investigators hope to collect DNA from it that will identify the killer.
A drawing of what Millie may have looked like has been posted at www.doenetwork.org, along with hundreds of unidentified men, women and children. On the Web site, she is known as Case File 296UFWA.
Dozens have been interviewed in pursuit of the killer, Giese said.
Millie’s information has been submitted to Washington State Patrol’s Missing and Unidentified Person database and has been entered into the National Crime Information Center, a computerized index of criminal justice information overseen by the FBI.
“We’re fairly certain there’s a missing person’s report in some agency’s drawer that will settle it for us,” Giese said. “You’re always going to have friends, family or co-workers who will miss a person.”
For the drawing of what Millie may have looked like, the skull was taken to Carrie Stuart Parks, a certified forensic artist in Cataldo, Idaho.
Parks, a commercial artist, started working for the North Idaho Crime Lab in 1981 doing courtroom exhibits and helping measure crime scenes. In 1985, she attended the FBI composite art school in Virginia, and in 1988 she began teaching forensic art. She has been doing drawings derived from skulls since 1986 and is the primary artist used by Spokane Police Department and the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office.
“I may get a skull every year or two,” the 55-year-old said.
The goal is to give enough information to create a resemblance but to avoid exaggerated details, Parks said. For example, the tip of the nose.
“We don’t really know what it looked like,” she said. “Making a person’s nose turn up can give a very different look, and turning it down is the same.”
A random hairstyle was picked from a 1984 magazine.
In general, “the drawing isn’t exact science, but it gives people an idea – a starting point,” Parks said.
The medical examiner
“When we get an unidentifiable body, it’s a challenge to us,” said Aiken, the Spokane County medical examiner. “When we know it’s going to be tough, we say, ‘ugh,’ but we don’t give up.”
Millie is one of those difficult cases.
When the medical examiner receives an unidentified body, a complete autopsy is performed to look for diseases and evidence of surgeries. Next, a full body X-ray scans for bone breaks or fractures, bone abnormalities, and age-related factors. Staff also examine the body’s nasal passages, which can discern the ethnic background. Staff catalog clothing and photograph the teeth.
In recent years, Hegewald has examined unidentified victims’ cases to make sure files were as complete as possible. In some cases, she found information or evidence hadn’t been entered into the file.”We’ve gone through each of these cases asking ourselves, ‘Now, what haven’t we tried?’ ” Hegewald said.
The medical examiner’s office in 2004 submitted several DNA samples to the Washington State Patrol Crime Lab from cases involving unidentified people.
“The cases where we don’t have DNA we’ve flagged,” Aiken said. “Because the way DNA is going, it’s taking less and less.”
Another challenge is the lack of a comprehensive nationwide law enforcement database.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children focuses on people 25 and younger. The North American Missing Persons database is for cases since 1996, and The Doe Network is for cases from before 2006, but neither network is tied to law enforcement. They aren’t complete and are difficult to navigate, officials said.
And even with a good national database, descriptions of missing people can vary.
“My brother’s got tattoos, but I couldn’t describe them,” Hegewald said. “Can you say exactly how tall your brother is?”
Hegewald spends hours trying to identify those found in Spokane, searching Web sites, databases and talking to other investigators in her field about their successes in identifying someone.
Millie’s case haunts her.
“We know she had at least one child,” Hegewald said. “If she was 20 to 24, her child would be at the age of which they are wondering about their mother.”
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