Ellen Criswell never met the girl in the mid-1980s photo who had a big smile, thick glasses and feathered, brown hair.
She and her husband, Donald Criswell, saw their niece in person only as a baby.
Last year, Criswell discovered that her niece Deanna Criswell, of Spokane, had not been heard from for decades and had never even been reported as missing.
Though the rest of the family hadn’t bothered to look, the aunt and uncle went on a quest to find their forgotten niece.
“It just sickened me, really, to think that a little girl was out there,” said Criswell, a mother of two daughters, and grandmother of four, who lives near Tampa, Florida. “I felt like no one cared about her and it just broke my heart.”
The parents and siblings of 16-year-old Deanna Criswell assumed that the girl with an extensive history of running away would make contact when she wanted to. The last person in her family to see her was her older sister, Debbie Renn, who dropped her off to take a bus to Arizona. She called Renn once she arrived, but the family hadn’t heard from her since.
A transient in Marana, Arizona, a suburb of Tuscon, found her decomposed body on Nov. 25, 1987 in a culvert under a road that runs along Interstate 10 – the main highway between Phoenix and Tuscon, said Marana Police Sgt. Chris Warren. She was shot five times with a .22-caliber gun and probably died about two weeks before she was discovered. Until Criswell’s aunt and uncle began work to find her, the body was known only as “Jane Doe 19.” .
In 2009, Marana’s crime scene supervisor, Tom Mooney, took an interest in the cold case. He determined that evidence taken from the body could be tested in ways not available in the late 1980s, Warren said. Police also exhumed her body, which the FBI used to create a facial reconstruction to help identify her.
By the time she was identified this month, police already determined who likely killed her. The DNA on her body traced back to William Knight, who was in the midst of a robbery spree in the Tucson area around the time Criswell was killed, Warren said. He was arrested nine days before Criswell’s body was found and died in prison from cancer in 2005.
The .22-caliber gun that Knight used in his robbery spree has since been destroyed, but the model of gun would have created the same “right-hand twist” ballistics that were found on the bullets in Criswell’s body, Warren said.
“Had he still been alive, we would have indicted him for murder and he would have faced trial for it,” Warren said.
Ellen and Donald Criswell were estranged from Deanna’s father, Jerry Criswell, for many years and only reconnected last March. That’s when they learned that their niece hadn’t been heard from in decades. Donald is Jerry’s brother.
Donald Criswell, a retired painter from Boeing, and Ellen, a retired auditor at REI, went on the Internet to search for her. The couple were lifelong Seattle residents until they moved to Florida about a dozen years ago.
“We were looking for a live girl for quite a while,” she said. “I really wanted to find her and let her know that she’s loved.”
Gradually, they realized that after so many years with no contact, Deanna was probably dead. That’s when they switched to looking at online databases of unidentified remains. They were given a photo of her from her father, and Renn told them she had gone to Arizona shortly before she went missing.
With these details, they located a picture in November on a database of unidentified remains of a facial sculpture the FBI created when Criswell’s body was exhumed. It looked like the right age and had the same gap between her front teeth. The description estimating her weight and shoe size were on target. The only detail that was wrong was an assumption that she was Hispanic. They contacted Mooney late last year.
“We got lucky because they had done the bust on her,” she said. “We thought it looked just like her.”
DNA from her father and her mother proved this week that the body is Criswell’s.
“If the aunt and uncle had never done this we would never be where we are because nobody would be looking for her,” Warren said.
Criswell’s sister, Renn, said last week that Criswell met Knight on the streets of Spokane and bought her the bus ticket to join him in Arizona after he already had moved there.
Ellen Criswell said she’s upset that many people have described Knight as her niece’s boyfriend.
“She was 16 years old and he was 31,” she said. “He was a pedophile.”
She said it doesn’t matter that Knight will never be punished for her niece’s murder.
“She’s gone,” she said. “It’s not going to bring her back.”
Though she is grieving, Ellen Criswell said she’s grateful that her niece was found all those years ago.
“She’s not out there in the woods somewhere,” she said. “It’s sad what happened to Deanna. Obviously Deanna fell through the cracks and there was nobody there to catch her.”
Next month, Deanna’s father, Jerry Criswell, will travel to Tucson with Donald Criswell and another brother to the place a new tombstone on Deanna Criswell’s grave, Ellen Criswell said.
The name over her grave no longer will read “Jane Doe 19.”
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