A look into the 43-year-old cold case involving a girl who died under mysterious circumstances in San Diego County and has yet to be identified.
Updated Feb. 14, 2021 at 12:47 P.M.
She had brown hair with a hint of red to it—not quite auburn, but not entirely plain. Her features were interesting: a malformed right ear, smaller than the left—she was sure to cover the disparity with her long locks. Cascading hair was all in the rage in the late 70s—just another teenage Venus de Milo with soft features and youthful abandon. Her skin was light—ethnic origins unknown (though her Doe file lists her as white.) And behind a moderately sized mouth with thin lips were a set of large teeth. She was 14, or 18, or anywhere in between—a life barely half lived before somebody discarded her body on a dirt road in Otay, California.
For forty-three years, Jane Doe's identity, or Otay Jane, has eluded the San Diego Sherriff's department and websleuths alike. Who was she? Who killed her? Was she killed? Did anyone even miss her?
A runner found Otay Jane on the side of Proctor Valley Road, off the hiking trail that curves along the gentle hillside, on Valentine's Day 1978. The coroner, Jack R. Larkie, ruled she'd been dead approximately two days. It only takes two hours for the eyes to turn milky and opaque—obscuring their natural colour. Brown became the general assumption. Much was assumed about Otay Jane, like her family—surely someone would have reported a missing teen. She was somebody's daughter, granddaughter—she didn't cross this world an unknown entity; somebody loved her. Then days passed, and weeks, eventually years, and now decades. On the outside, it seemed as if no one was looking for the girl in the San Diego Sheriff's department's composite sketch. However, I discovered the depths of the websleuthing community and found she had not been forgotten, and the investigation is very much ongoing.
Hitchhiking culture of the 1970s—getting into stranger's cars wasn't altogether an act of naiveté in defiance of self-perseverance; it was the means of travel for free spirits, aspiring musicians, draft dodgers, and flower children. Waiting on the shoulder in denim bellbottoms, woven top rippling in the gentle breeze—exposing sun-kissed bellybuttons, arms outstretched, thumb erect until chance favoured them. Some toted around bags; others just had the clothes on their back. Being barefoot wasn't all that uncommon; nature's shoes were the hard callouses that formed on the soles of the foot, built from a life of wandering from one unknown to the next.
Cars were a luxury the average wandress could ill afford. Had Otay Jane been taken up by the counterculture movement—tempted by the promise of adventure? Runaway seemed likely. If she'd been from San Diego county, one could reasonably put two and two together: missing girl, Jane Doe—solved, done. No, not that easy.
The cold case page dedicated to Otay Jane on the SDPD website didn't offer a wealth of information; some good, ol' fashioned Googling was in order. Little could be found beyond the authorities' offerings—just the same basic bits regurgitated across the web: 5'1", roughly 88 lbs; tortured and poisoned; body burned, dumped—case cold. I hopped from the Charley Project, Jane Doe Network—a solid handful of sites dedicated to finding the lost and identifying the anonymous. Few news articles came up—to be precise, only three. Promising start.
The only article from 1978 that I've turned up thus far was wedged between a photo of an Arbor Day tree planting event at a local school and an ad for HBO, with a screenshot from Annie Hall, tempting readers with their low, low price of $7.95. No front page—not even second or third—hidden in the recesses of the Chula Vista Star, yesterday's news.
Otay, a remote, unincorporated area, remained cut-off from mainstream society until the 80s. Chula Vista itself only had 50,000 residents in 1978. The 805 freeway that dropped you into Otay (Bonita now) didn't pass through in the 70s—no, the freeway wasn't extended until after Otay incorporated in 1986.
Growing up in relatively small areas myself, I know that while people may be distanced, we were not strangers. You see the same faces, grow up around the same kids. If one of my classmates had a misshaped ear, possibly deaf—you recognize that kid. Everyone would know that kid; she'd be the talk of the town on a day when gossip wells ran dry. Nosey housewives with little to fill their day while the husband went to do his eight, and the kids were safe at school—it wouldn't be all that uncommon if every aspect of that girl's life travelled from lip to lip.
As I measured the details, deciding how she was poisoned, how she received the cracked tooth and contusions, four theories formulated based on the handful of puzzle pieces.
Theory 1: Otay Jane could be the classic runaway, taking to the road with her teenage boyfriend, living from mile to mile—drinking, listening to the catchy rifts of Bruce Springsteen or the soul quieten melodies of the Grateful Dead, never knowing where they'd be tomorrow or even what form their next meal would come. Such things like sustenance were trivial when you're young, in love—the whole world laid out before you, except Romeo loved a little too hard. Various ponderers believe Otay Jane had been tortured while the SDPD's official position is that the body "suffered trauma." That's one way of putting it. Her lower, front right incisor cracked in half; left cheek bruised with the eye swollen shut, and contusions on the back-right portion of her skull—no fracture. The body left not far off the trail, clothed, and partially burned—dump and run. Not the M.O. of a criminal mastermind.
Theory 2: Maybe her parents thought she didn't come out just right and punished her for it. Not all come from happy homes where children are accustomed to love without cost—who receive hugs not slaps, apple crumble pie rather than the taste of air as she sits locked in her bedroom for some unforeseen sleight. She wouldn't call the cops on her family; she couldn't—guarding them against the boys in blue when it should have been them protecting her from the family. They love me. They love me. They love me. Lies can only numb us for so long. Her last act, deadly silence, a justification for abuse. The very people who you'd think would push heaven and earth to find their daughter are the ones who killed her. Perfectly aware of their culpability, they load the body into the back of the station wagon under the cover of night, drive out to a local spot they'd driven by a dozen times before, and trusted nature to do the rest. They set fire to the centre of the body, thinking the flames would spread to the ends rather than extinguish, covering up any trace that could lead to their name.
Theory 3: What if Jane isn't from the U.S.? Perhaps that's the missing link—why, after all these years, we haven't been able to connect a name to the face. This is my latest of theories; I know little of human trafficking in the 1970s—the term "sex trafficking" wasn't coined until the 80s. But say Jane finds herself swept up by unsavoury folks; they move her a great distance to be bartered or bought, and she's not the only one. A gang against one girl—it's easy work for them, but twenty, fifty, a hundred; they need a way to keep them inline, easier to treat like cattle, so they drug them. Maybe they keep someone on the payroll, funnelling in narcotics to slip to the girls. The girls, they're prisoners, don't eat much—losing weight, muscle. The body and mind break, the drugs go beyond what they're expected to do. She dies. Her captors make a pit stop on the side of the road, do their best to get rid of her, and move on.
Theory 4: Of course, the always popular idea: serial killer. No fancy fanfare for this one. Could she be an unconnected victim to a string of murders—overlooked due to location and timing. The Santa Rosa hitchhiker murders sparked this notion on the sleuthing boards. Killers usually cease their crimes if they are caught, die, or are incarcerated. This is not to say that the Santa Rosa killer deserves the credit for Otay Jane; sometimes we can't always connect the dots. Is there a pattern yet to be discovered?
Otay Jane had extensive dental work done—including one root canal—someone cared enough to pay for those services on her behalf. She could have been in the wrong place at the wrong time then good-bye, Jane.
Or, perhaps it wasn't a serial killer but a serial rapist. If Jane Doe is depending on the goodwill of strangers, she could have hitched a ride with the wrong guy. The open highway is his hunting ground—offering a subdued smile to a handsome jumper looking to rest her feet. She climbs into the cab; his calm demeanour is disarming. He prefers it when they don't fight, so he finds a way to drug her and disorient her, except that he overestimates the dosage. She's no use to him now.
Christie Harris, admin of Unidentified, Nameless, and Never Forgotten (UNNF), and the "Who was Otay Jane 1978?" Facebook page, inspired that theory. "I've always questioned whether she [was] a jumper. [A] runaway that hopped from truck to truck to get across the country." She spoke at lengths about her efforts to help identify Otay Jane. In December, she forwarded a list of twelve candidates for comparison by authorities. No word on whether any of the twelve has been cleared.
With little official information to go off and two wildly different composite sketches, it could feel hopeless, but not for people like Harris and the other members of the UNNF. One of the group's members, Fernanda, created the Facebook page for Otay Jane—she lives in Brazil. "I felt a connection with her and a compassion." Their goal is to help bring closure to victims who have been swallowed by time. Despite their tireless work; there's still much we don't know.
Otay Jane was "poisoned" with meperidine, an opioid and substitute for morphine (sometimes used during childbirth back in the day.) Demerol, the drug's common name, is noted as being as addictive as it's counterparts. The phrase "Opioid crisis" wasn't slung around in the 70s (oxy didn't hit the market until the 90s.)
The SDPD website says "murder"; instinct begs to differ. Meperidine is highly addictive. It creates a state of numbness, can make one feel at ease as it slows the heart rate, taking you as close to death without actually dying—unless you don't know your limits. In need of an escape, an at-risk teen rifles through the medicine cabinet for anything that promises even the most minor of highs. She takes that first tablet—maybe two to be safe—and then it hits her, that wave tidaling over, washing away all her worries until the anxiety becomes nothing but a memory. She becomes dependent on the escape that eludes her constantly because who the hell has meperidine? When she finally gets her hands on it, she devours those tablets like a candy bar she'd snuck past her parents as a child. She can't wait for that escape; she needs it immediately, needs the pain to be gone, needs everything to feel okay again.
Someone had to know the area. Proctor Valley Road's remoteness—sectioned off between ranch style housing from the 60s—this was a destination. A bike park seems to be sitting right where Otay Jane was found. The hiker's path crosses the two-lane road with no shoulder or sidewalk from the bike park into a shaded pathway between a residence and a commercial area containing large, black piping. The ground went from dry and dusty to thick and muddy with few rocks to tread upon. Around the curve is a moderately sized field-like area away from prying eyes.
On February 14, 1978, in Chula Vista, the air was a chilly 59 degrees with a mild breeze drifting in from the south. A jogger ran along Proctor Valley Road this particular Tuesday. He found Otay Jane around 11:30, lying on her back in blue bib overalls and a floral halter top, barefoot, her hair secured with a rubber-band. The jogger arrived at the Sherriff's department off Lemon Grove roughly fifty minutes later. At approximately 1—1:30, the investigation begins.
600,000 individuals go missing each year in the U.S., according to NamUs. Within 1972 and 1978, nearly 50 girls roughly fitting Otay Jane's description were reported missing. So many of the profiles featured computer-generated photos to depict what these lost girls may look like today—vain hope they'd survived all these years. None distinguished themselves with an oddly sized right ear or were listed as moderately underweight. One girl had the same eyes as the composite sketch. Still, another resembled the computer-generated facial composition of Otay Jane. The coroner's report noted tissue swelling in the face—how accurate are the facial composites?
The faces of missing girls stared off, smiling, only echoes. What if the sketch did not quite capture Otay Jane's essence? Could her height be off by an inch? Anyone who matched a rough approximation of Otay Jane could not be ruled out without concrete evidence. How much of the information was reliable, what little of it there was.
It's easy to look at this case with a modern lens; investigative tools have come far since the 70s with the genesis of DNA testing, databases for sharing information, e-mail. We're also more reliant on the face-value of intelligence. A single error from a source can spin an investigation off in the wrong direction. I had to put myself in that era when asking "why?" Why was the body burned? Why just the stomach, fingers, and genitals? Why did no one come forward to identify her? Who would desecrate a teenage girl in 1978?
I met Sammy Lamb five days into my search after stumbling across a post from a user on Websleuths in response to a thread on Otay Jane. While I've been at this for about a week, Sammy has been investigating Otay Jane for two years. "I started to compulsively scroll the California Jane Doe bodies page, at least once a week. I don't know why I was compelled to do this; almost all of the women went missing before I was born. But I just kept feeling this need to go back, just in case I could remember one of them, even though I knew it was impossible."
Lamb produced a short film inspired by Otay Jane, which has cycled through a handful of festivals and can be viewed on Vimeo. To make Soil, Lamb, a Los Angeles native with family from San Diego, used footage of the area and excerpts from the coroner's report. "I sort of felt like I was being haunted when I was making the film."
My communications thus far had not been fruitful. On day one, I e-mailed the SDPD. Detective William Altenhof, part of the homicide unit/cold case team, responded: "You are more than welcome to telephone me, but the information available is posted on the Sheriff's website. I do not have any additional information to share."
Lamb also received a similar response. "The Sheriff's office never responded to my request for documents, or followed up on my phone calls." She found the medical examiner's office helpful, having sent her the coroner's report.
Though the M.E. office was far more obliging, their generosity had its limits. Harris works with the Doe Coordinator, "the person who handles the Doe cases." Harris says, "I asked if she was cremated because I've seen several people say California is known for cremating their unidentified and was told they could not tell me that." A couple of websleuths stated that the Sheriff's office has declared DNA testing impossible, and only dental records were available for comparison.
Lamb leans towards the family idea. She ran theories by a retired sheriff in her family who worked "worked as a border patrol agent in Otay County around the 80s, but worked closely with people who had been in the department since the 70s." She went on to share, "He also suggested the police may actually know her identity, but withheld it as to not directly involve/alert the family because they were under investigation, and law enforcement was waiting to find conclusive evidence that never came."
The Facebook page, Reddit thread, and Websleuths discussion all appeared within the month of October. People are talking about Otay Jane, but is it enough? Has the SDPD made any headway? Is it an active investigation, or are they waiting on a serendipitous tip? And when do we reach a time of too long? If they knew Otay Jane's identity, at what point does this game of investigative chicken become wasteful?
Culture is vital to consider. In 1961, Betty Williams, a teenager in Odessa, Texas, went missing. A short investigation consisting mainly of interviews with her classmates led detectives to ex-boyfriend John Mack Herring. With little probing, Herring brought the detectives to the lake where he dumped Williams's body after shooting her in the head with a shotgun. She sat kneeling before him in a pink negligée under the pale moonlight; barrel pressed to her head. Bang! Gone.
Herring claimed that—and friends who Williams made the same request to corroborated this—she asked him to kill her. Herring went to trial and was found not guilty of killing Williams. After all, she asked for it. Williams was a free spirit who went from one boy to the next, loved the spotlight and wished to be on Broadway one day. As exuberant as she was, a penetrating sadness resided within her. Williams was troubled and crying for help; she got buckshot instead. Herring went on to have a life, living to seventy-five. Could Otay Jane be another Betty? Swept under the rug to protect the future of a kid who was believed to be capable of achieving more than a poor, disfigured girl?
October 2, 2014. The last published articles about Otay Jane called on the public for assistance, for any information that could aid in the quest of identifying Jane Doe. They were sister articles: one from the Times of San Diego and the other, the Baltimore Sun. In the six years since—nothing. I reached out to the Times of San Diego, thinking they would be interested in a follow-up. No response.
Near the bike park, I stumbled upon a small memorial. Couldn't tell you if it was for her. Would be nice, though.
What Jane is for me is different from what she is for Sammy, Christie, and all the websleuths out there. For Fernanda, she asks "please, share her case […] someone out there knows something, no matter the distance, the time... Everyone can help, and don't be afraid to do it." Is there someone still alive who knows something? Who was she to the person that dumped her body? Daughter? Girlfriend? Customer? Just another victim? That's what she feels like now. Who was Otay Jane? It's about time we found out, don't you?
For the Otay Jane facebook page, click here.
To see Sammy Lamb's Soil, click here.