Toddler found dead in river in Mississippi identified by DNA after 38 years, authorities say

MOSS POINT, Miss. — Some called her Delta Dawn. Others remembered her as Baby Jane.

Mississippi authorities announced Friday that they have finally been able to give a name to an 18-month-old girl found slain in the Escatawpa River 38 years ago.

The tiny, 25-pound body of Alisha Ann Heinrich, of Joplin, Missouri, was fished out of the brush along the river the morning of Dec. 5, 1982. Alisha was last seen around Thanksgiving 1982, when she left her family’s Joplin home with her mother, Gwendolyn Mae Clemons, 23, and Clemons’ boyfriend.

Clemons said she wanted to start a new life in Florida, Jackson County Sheriff Mike Ezell said Friday. Neither she nor Alisha was seen again by family.

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Clemons’ boyfriend, whose name was not made public, eventually returned to Missouri without them. The man, who has since died, is considered a suspect in the baby’s death, Ezell said.

“We have family members up there that are cooperating with us,” Ezell said during a news conference. “It’s the reason why we don’t want to release his name at this time.”

Ezell told reporters that westbound passersby reported that they spotted a woman walking Dec. 3, 1982, with a child in her arms along Interstate 10 near the Alabama state line. Despite appearing to be in distress, the woman declined help from drivers who stopped to offer assistance, WLOX in Biloxi reported.

Around 7 a.m. Dec. 5, a passing truck driver reported seeing a woman’s body floating in the Escatawpa River near the I-10 bridge. Responding deputies found Alisha’s body instead.

Because of the heavy brush and weeds where Alisha was found, detectives do not believe it was her body that the trucker saw, according to the news station.

Clemons has never been found.

“We do not know if she is dead or alive at this point,” Ezell said. “We’re assuming the worst but we don’t know that for sure.”

An exhaustive search was conducted for the body reported by the trucker, but nothing was ever found. Searchers did discover the body of a Black man three days after Alisha’s body was recovered, but investigators said his body had been in the water for several months and was unrelated to the discovery of the toddler.

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That man has never been identified, either, WLOX reported.

An autopsy conducted on Alisha’s body found that someone tried to smother the toddler before throwing her into the water. She was alive when she hit the water, however, and drowning was determined to be her cause of death, according to the news station.

Dressed in a pink and white checkered dress and a diaper, Alisha had 12 teeth and appeared well-nourished and well cared for.

The toddler, who was “adopted” by a deputy and his wife so they could give her a proper burial, was laid to rest in Jackson County Memorial Park, the Sun Herald in Biloxi reported. Her gravestone reads, “Baby Jane: Known only to God.”

Delta Dawn Doe’s Grave Delta Dawn and/or Baby Jane Escatawpa, Jackson County, Mississippi Unidentified...

Posted by Unidentified Persons: John and Jane Doe on Wednesday, January 22, 2020

In 2009, Ezell said, the baby’s body was exhumed so investigators could collect DNA samples, which were sent to the University of North Texas for analysis. The university works with the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs, which is a national clearinghouse for missing people and the unidentified dead across the U.S.

Last year, investigators turned to genetic genealogy to solve the case. They submitted the DNA profile of the unidentified toddler to Othram Inc., a Houston-area private DNA lab that works with law enforcement agencies to solve cold cases.

Ortham was able to tie the profile to potential family members in Missouri.

“DNA samples were collected from two of Gwendolyn’s family members and sent to NamUs,” Ezell said.

Analysis of the family members’ samples confirmed that the unidentified child was Alisha.

The meeting with Clemons’ family was emotional, according to Joe Bignell, a Pascagoula police investigator who also serves on the FBI’s Safe Streets Task Force.

“They were still under the assumption that Alisha was alive and living somewhere. They were still hoping, but they were very thankful that after 38 years, the case was still being worked,” Bignell said. “It gave them some closure.

“The aunt and the grandmother were present, along with one of the cousins, and they were extremely thankful that we were able to identify her and give her name back. And now they know what happened. They know where she was. They were very thankful.”

Watch Friday’s news conference below.

Posted by Jackson County Sheriff's Department on Friday, December 4, 2020

The search for answers in the case will continue, Ezell said. The sheriff said detectives are reaching out to other law enforcement agencies seeking any information on unidentified bodies that might belong to Clemons.

Like her daughter, Clemons had strawberry blonde hair. She was between 5 feet, 2 inches and 5 feet, 8 inches in height and she weighed between 105 and 135 pounds at the time of her disappearance.

Detectives are also continuing to investigate whether the man who left Joplin with Clemons and her daughter was responsible for their deaths.

Anyone with information about this case is asked to contact Jackson County Sheriff’s Department at 228-769-3036 or Mississippi Coast Crime Stoppers at 877-787-5898.