Authorities exhume body for DNA testing in 1984 cold case

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Investigator Matt Sutton and Lt. Investigator Scott Bjerkos of the Vernon County Sheriff’s Department seal the coffin of “Jane Doe” at the Viroqua Cemetery Aug. 12. The coffin was being prepared to be sent to the Wisconsin Crime Lab in Madison for DNA testing.

By Matt Johnson, Vernon County Broadcaster, Viroqua

Bludgeoned to death with her hands cut from her body, “Jane Doe” was left along a rural Vernon County, Wis., roadside in May of 1984 with no clue of her identity or the circumstances surrounding her death.

Wednesday afternoon, Aug. 12, Vernon County Sheriff John Spears watched as “Jane Doe’s” casket was removed from the Viroqua Cemetery to be sent to the state crime lab, so the body can go through DNA testing.

“It didn’t come lightly, our decision to exhume the body,” Spears said. “Thinking positively, we’re hoping further investigation will lead to her being identified. Her family will know that we never gave up.”

Spears is the third sheriff in Vernon County to assume investigation into one of two cold cases—the other being the circumstances surrounding the death of Terry Doloway, whose body was found in rural Vernon County in 1985.

Spears said investigators believe both Jane Doe and Doloway were killed elsewhere, but their bodies were dumped in Vernon County.

Jane Doe’s case is almost a complete mystery. Three youths driving on Old Line Road, four miles west of Westby, came across the body lying by the side of the gravel road, May 4, 1984, at 11:15 p.m. They drove to a nearby farm and reported it to the Vernon County Sheriff’s Department.

Despite television reports of the murder at the time, no definitive information came forward regarding the woman, aged between 50 and 65, who had few distinguishing marks.

Authorities believe whoever dumped her body was almost seen by witnesses during an earlier attempt to dump the body the same night. Somehow, the perpetrator avoided a close call.

Since Jane Doe’s burial, several attempts have been made to revive the case in the media to find just one person who recognizes the facial reconstruction photo or circumstances regarding the case.

It’s a daunting challenge, as time has left faded memories and fewer possible witnesses.

“We hope we run across that one person who remembers she was a lady who lived down the block, or they remembered her in their neighborhood,” Spears said. “The right piece of information can help us give her a name and that would make a world of difference.”

In 2012, local law enforcement made a push to get the story into media in the areas of Rochester, Minneapolis, Eau Claire and Madison. Jane Doe’s body was dumped just off U.S. Hwy. 14 and it wouldn’t be a difficult task for someone to drive the body from a larger metropolitan area and dump it in rural Vernon County.

With all of the DNA profiles that have been accumulated since testing started in earnest over the past 20 years, it’s hoped a possible match or partial match of Jane Doe’s DNA, or evidence from her body, can provide more clues.

The casket was being transferred to Madison on Wednesday and a one-day turn-around time was expected before Jane Doe was returned to Viroqua for reburial in a new vault. Exhumation was always a possibility and Jane Doe was buried shallower than normal in 1984 for that purpose.

More information on the Jane Doe case can be found at

In the past 31 years, the Vernon County Sheriff’s Department has worked through more than 4,000 leads in the case. Additional tips can be called to the Vernon County Sheriff’s Department at (608) 638-5710 or Vernon County Crime Stoppers at (608) 637-8477.

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