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Teen Jane Doe Case Baffles Santa Ana Police

She was found dead in January, but detectives can't find her listed as missing. They say it's odd not to have heard from a relative by now.

March 07, 2004|Christine Hanley | Times Staff Writer

The girl's photograph looks like it was snapped for a high school yearbook -- blue eyes, a heart-shaped face, and wavy auburn hair that sweeps her shoulders. She doesn't look a day older than 16.

It's been nearly seven weeks since the girl with the pretty face was found dead on a darkened Santa Ana street corner. Police still don't know who she is or why no one has come forward to identify her.

Investigators say it's unusual that they have not heard from anyone by now. Many police departments have so-called Jane Doe or John Doe cases on their hands, but the girl in Santa Ana falls into an age category -- a teenager -- in which police are typically alerted quickly.

One of their few leads is the photo. The picture was taken by police in Los Angeles when the girl was picked up for loitering, but she gave arresting officers a fake name. Though it gives investigators her whereabouts on a certain date, they still can't put a name to the face.

"The identity of a person can give you motive, tell you their history," said Sgt. Mark Steen, who supervises the Santa Ana Police Department's homicide division. "Once you get it, you can really run with it, because you can go in so many directions."

The mystery began the night of Jan. 19. Police were called to a middle-class neighborhood in the northwest corner of the city about 6:45 p.m. by a resident who reported a girl lying on North Morse Drive.

She was taken to UCI Medical Center in Orange, where she was pronounced dead from head injuries. Police say there was no evidence of sexual assault. Details of the autopsy are being withheld.

Investigators said they have canvassed the neighborhood where the girl was found, but have not located anyone who saw anything of significance. Nobody seems to have known the victim.

Police appeared to get a major break early in the case when they ran her fingerprints through nationwide databases and got a match on prints taken by Los Angeles police when the girl was arrested in late December.

But because she lied about her name, investigators from Santa Ana hit a dead end. The only thing they learned from the photo is that the girl was in Los Angeles in December.

Her mug shot is posted on the website of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

She is listed as a Jane Doe, with her physical profile: white female, 5 feet 5, 120 pounds, with blue eyes and red or brown hair, estimated to be 16 years old.

That description has been distributed to police agencies in California and other states. It also has been entered into various state and national missing persons databases, including Missing and Unidentified Persons and the National Criminal Information Center.

The trouble is, if her real name and profile is already listed in any of those databanks, police need a name to make a match. Although criminal databases include fingerprints, others do not, and young people frequently have never been identified.

"We don't know for sure if she's unreported or reported missing, until she gets ID'd," Steen said.

To that end, investigators are comparing her physical traits with the hundreds of thousands of people listed in the databases. But it's a needle-in-the-haystack process that can take a long time and still yield no results.

"The analysis is not necessarily instantaneous," said Robin Rodarte, a Santa Ana police corporal in charge of missing person investigations.

So far, computer searches have come up empty, leaving investigators in limbo, waiting for someone to come forward.

Steen and other investigators said that usually a friend or relative of an unidentified person calls them by the time the victim's fingerprints are taken. And young Jane Does and John Does are almost always identified within days of their deaths.

The only similar case Steen and others could recall in Santa Ana was in the late 1980s. A girl in her early 20s was found bludgeoned to death and decapitated near Santiago Park. She is still a Jane Doe.

Santa Ana police are asking the public for help. Anyone with information is asked to call Investigator Jaime Rodriguez at (714) 245-8360.

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