DNA cold case: 1980 Texas ‘Jane Doe’ identified as missing Minnesota teen

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — A teen found raped and murdered along a Texas interstate 41 years ago has been identified through genetic genealogy as a missing Minnesota teen, according to authorities.

The body of Sherri Ann Jarvis, 14, of Stillwater, was discovered the morning of Nov. 1, 1980, by a truck driver traveling along Interstate 45 near Huntsville. The teen was nude, with only a necklace with a rectangular pendant to serve as identification.

A pair of pantyhose and a pair of red leather sandals lay near her body. An autopsy determined Jarvis had been raped and strangled, likely with the pantyhose.

“News of the brutal murder traveled swiftly, and many people came forward with stories of a teenager that was seen the day before, in the area, asking for directions to the Ellis Prison Unit,” according to a statement from Othram Inc., the Texas-based forensic DNA lab that helped authorities identify Jarvis.

The teen was spotted Halloween night at a gas station south of Huntsville, then at a truck stop north of the city. The Ellis unit is located about 12 miles north of Huntsville.

At each stop, Jarvis sought directions to the prison unit, though her reason is unknown. The employees she spoke to at the truck stop asked if her parents knew where she was, according to ABC 13 in Houston.

“Who cares?” the girl responded.

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The next time the teen was seen, around 9:30 a.m. Nov. 1, she was dead. Texas Monthly reported that the medical examiner estimated she had been killed about six hours before the truck driver found her body.

The leads in the murder case quickly dried up. Jarvis, who became known only as “Walker County Jane Doe,” was buried that January in Huntsville’s Oakwood Cemetery.

The girl’s body was exhumed in 1999 for authorities to retrieve tissue samples for DNA testing, but no matches were found in law enforcement databases, Othram Inc. officials said. Walker County Detective Tom Bean, who reopened the case in 2015, was in the meantime able to exclude dozens of missing girls as the teen buried in Huntsville.

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Fast forward to July 2020, when Bean received a call from Othram, where the Walker County Jane Doe case, less than 50 miles from the company’s headquarters in The Woodlands, had been on scientists’ radar.

The Othram team found little viable material left to test, according to Texas Monthly. Most of the skeletal remains that had been taken from Jarvis’ grave in 1999 had been stripped of genetic material and were too degraded to be of use.

The scientists turned to another preserved item: a piece of Walker County Jane Doe’s brain.

“Ultimately, formalin-fixed paraffin-embedded tissue was key to enabling her identification,” Othram’s statement read. “This material was sent to Othram’s laboratory, where Othram scientists used a proprietary DNA extraction and damage remediation approach to develop enough suitable DNA to proceed with DNA testing.”

Texas Monthly reported that the use of formaldehyde and paraffin can protect the DNA found in body tissue, but that the use of the chemicals also damages the integrity of the DNA.

“Using some kind of material that incorporates formaldehyde was a standard practice back then,” Othram founder David Mittelman told the magazine. “That sucks all the water out of a human cell and makes it a very rigid structure that’s basically frozen it in time. It’s a cool thing to do, because you can look at the cells under a microscope a decade or two later.

“But the bad news is that can create a situation where you’ve essentially got a dehydrated butterfly pinned to a wooden board. If you want to take that butterfly apart later, it’ll just collapse into dust.”

Because of the damage the chemicals had inflicted on the brain tissue, only a minuscule amount of DNA remained. It took multiple rounds of testing and genome sequencing to compile enough material for a genetic profile.

The Othram team then used that profile to conduct research in public genealogy databases. Those investigative leads were handed over to Bean.

In March, Bean located a half-dozen family members of the unidentified girl, who were able to give him her possible identity. He was pointed to a close family member of Jarvis, who provided a DNA sample.

The sample proved that Jarvis was the Walker County Jane Doe.

Last week, flanked by his colleagues from multiple agencies, Walker County Sheriff Clint McRae announced that the slain teen had been identified.

Watch last week’s announcement below, courtesy of KBTX-TV.

“I never liked to refer to this case as being a cold case,” McRae said at a news conference. “It has always been a top priority of our department. We loved her as well.”

Jarvis’ family told investigators that the year before the teen died, she had been picked up by Stillwater authorities for habitual truancy. Shortly after her 14th birthday, she ran away from the foster home in which she had been placed, ABC 13 reported.

In the last letter she wrote her family, Jarvis said she would be coming home. She was not heard from again.

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“We lost Sherri more than 41 years ago and we’ve lived in bewilderment every day since, until now as she has finally been found,” read a statement from the family. “Sherri Ann Jarvis was a daughter, sister, cousin and granddaughter. She loved children, animals and horseback riding.

“She was deprived of so many life experiences as a result of this tragedy. She was denied the opportunity to experience romance and love, marital bliss, the heartache and pain of loss, the pure joy of having children or growing old and being able to reflect on such milestones afforded an abounding lifetime.

“You are with Mom and Dad now, Sherri, may you rest in peace.”

While Jarvis has been identified, her case is far from over. Detectives continue trying to find her killer.

“We actually have some positive leads right now,” Walker County Chief Deputy Tim Whitecotton said, according to CBS News. “We’re very excited about some of these and definitely are following up with our other law enforcement partners, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Texas Rangers.”

Anyone with information about Jarvis’ murder is asked to contact the Walker County Sheriff’s Office at 936-435-2400.

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