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FINDING A KILLER: Lee Co. detectives still working to identify a Jane Doe and killer three decades later

Posted at 10:08 PM, Feb 08, 2024

LEE COUNTY, Fla. — Behind every face and every action, there's a name. The search for those names is where the journey begins.

Fox 4 senior reporter Kaitlin Knapp is on a mission to get to know the names we know, and perhaps find the ones we don't, along with the detectives working in the same communities you call home.

In Fox 4's new series called "Sunshine Crimes," we begin with a woman that has no name. She's only known as the York Island Jane Doe.

York Island is just south of St. James City on Pine Island. That's where nearly 30 years ago, four fishermen made a gruesome discovery on October 7, 1995.

Lee County Sheriff Carmine Marceno says the anglers pulled up to a red sleeping bag where they found a decomposed body inside.

"Jane Doe. 35 to 45-years-old, 115 pounds approximately, with blonde, brown hair," Marceno described the woman.

York Island Jane Doe

While technology wasn't as advance, medical examiners did an autopsy. Marceno says she had been in the water for about three or four weeks.

They could not tell how she died, only that someone killed her.

However, Marceno says one thing stood out.

"In the skull there were staples," he said. "There was a very unique surgery that was performed. Only 1,000 doctors worldwide would be able to do that surgery."

And to this day, detectives are still trying to figure out where she had the surgery. They're also digging for other potential clues.

"Looking for DNA, looking for dental records, looking for any lead that we have," Marceno explained. "It’s piecing things back and looking for that one detail, that one break in the case."

All of the case's evidence sits at the Lee County Sheriff's Office Forensic Center. LCSO gave Fox 4 exclusive access inside, showing us the evidence the public has not seen.

"Our detectives are in the detailed minutia every single day," Marceno said.

Sgt. Robert Patton with the Homicide Unit is one of the those detectives. All the detectives work cases, including the cold ones, though there is a Cold Case Unit.

The evidence is frozen in time from 1995.

"The barnacles that were found were probably 20 to 28 days in nature," Marceno said.

And those barnacles could still be seen on the sleeping bag Patton pulled from the evidence box.

Jane Doe sleeping bag

There's evidence that gets even more disturbing and sinister.

"This is the battery that the rope was attached to the sleeping bag holding her down," Patton said.

Marceno says it's a common 63-pound battery.

"Generally a 3-volt battery is what you would use in a golf cart," he said.

You can also use it for a sailboat. In this case, detectives say it was used to weigh Jane Doe down in the water, but they do not know how she got there.

Jane Doe marine battery

More questions arise as detectives tried to figure out who Jane Doe is.

She was found wearing maroon scrubs from the Charleston, South Carolina VA Hospital. However, LCSO says no one there knew who Jane Doe was.

Jane Doe scrubs

"We don’t know if it was something that was picked up at a thrift store or second hand," Patton said.

Jane Doe was also wearing a ring and a broken watch frozen in time reading September 25 at 12:50 p.m.

As time passed, Marceno says detectives are relying on new technology to help identify her.

They came up with new sketches in 2019.

York Island Jane Doe 2019

In 2021, they say a new DNA profile for genealogy testing tied Jane Doe to some potential distant family members in Orangeburg, South Carolina. This is about a 90 minute drive north of the VA hospital.

"So recently we sent DNA out to the lab again and we’re hoping it comes back with some kind of direction, some kind of hit to give us another clue in this case," Marceno explained.

When asked if Marceno thinks the break in the case will come from genealogy, the sheriff said he's not sure.

"I can’t say with absolute certainty that genealogy will break a case. Does it assist us? Is it helpful? I think everything’s helpful," he responded.

The help can also come from you. Marceno realizes Jane Doe was found so long ago, but he's optimistic.

"Someone knows something," he said. " Every single day they [detectives] work it like it was one second ago for closure."

It's an optimism that echoes inside the department, and in the minds of the detectives who hope to bring some closure to the York Island Jane Doe.

"She’s a person, she was somebody’s family member and we’re not going to stop until we find out and we answer all those questions of who she is and how did she come up in that location and ultimately her demise," Patton said.

If you know anything about Jane Doe's case or her name, you're asked to call the Lee County Sheriff's Office.