On a brisk Monday afternoon on February 28, 1983, in St. Louis Missouri, two rummagers went looking for scrap metal for their car in the basement of an abandoned apartment building — which has long since been bulldozed — located at 5635 Clemens Avenue. One of the individuals pulled out his lighter to light his cigarette and that’s when they stumbled upon a gruesome sight.
There was an African American girl estimated to be between the ages of eight to eleven and approximately 4’10 – 5’6 in height. She was wearing a blood-stained yellow V-neck sweater with no tags and she was positioned face down with her pants and underwear removed. Her head had been decapitated and mold was growing on her neck. There were two coats of red nail polish on her fingers and her hands were bound by the wrists with red and white nylon rope.
When homicide detectives Joe Burgoon and Herb Riley arrived at the crime scene they initially thought she could have been a prostitute until they examined the body and realized the victim hadn’t gone through puberty. They determined she was beheaded elsewhere — possibly by a large carving knife because of how cleanly cut her head was removed — due to the lack of blood and was subsequently discarded at a later time. They did find some traces of blood on the side of the walls leading to the basement that indicated she had been carried and her body brushed against it during the process. An autopsy conducted by Mary Case from St. Louis’s Medical Examiner’s Office showed she had been raped and her cause of death was by strangulation three or five days prior to being found.
As for the child’s head, it was never recovered despite an extensive search from Jerry Thomas and Frank Booker. This hindered the investigation because dental examinations couldn’t be provided nor a facial reconstruction through forensic technology programming. The investigators scoured a list of all children at the surrounding schools but everyone was accounted for. They proceeded to look through the database of missing children yet there had been no reports of a young child matching her description being missing, and she was ruled out as being five possible victims of ranging from several states including a Jane Doe from Northampton County, North Carolina.
At one point, detectives sought out assistance from a group of psychics who performed a seance. Herb Riley gave them photos of Jane Doe’s fingerprints, and as they passed the photocopies around they all had the same conclusion; her head would be located on a boat in the Gulf of Mexico and he should immediately contact the Coast Guard. This lead was pursued in-depth but it proved to be a dead end.
Jane Doe’s case quickly turned cold and after ten months of exhausting all possible leads and nobody coming forward to claim her body, she was buried in December of 1983 at Washington Park Cemetary in Berkeley, Missouri.
Ten years later in 1993, investigators mailed her blood-stained sweater and nylon rope that bound her hands to a psychic residing in Florida for further analysis but this was a fruitless endeavor because the evidence was lost in the mail delivery. In 1996, the original homicide detective Herb Riley passed away and Jane Doe’s case was one of two cases he never solved during his tenure with the police department.
Twenty years passed by and in June of 2013, investigators were able to exhume the child’s remains with the hope of gathering new forensic evidence by modern advancements made in science and technology. This task proved difficult because the cemetery she had been buried in was unkempt, appeared long forgotten, her grave was unmarked, and many people were displaced because of insufficient care with the burial records.
With the help of willful volunteers and other various resources, Jane Doe’s remains were unearthed and transported to the St. Louis Medical Examiner’s Office where researchers from the Smithsonian Institution and University of North Texas recalibrated bone sampling and minerals (stable isotope analysis) to attempt to narrow down her native origins based on the water she had drank. The testing revealed she had spent most of her life in one of the numerous southeastern states including Georgia, Mississippi, Arkansas, Texas, Tennessee, Florida, Louisiana, and North or South Carolina.
Though new scientific testing provided a glimmer of hope to the child’s case, the police say it’s rather unlikely she will be properly identified unless someone comes forward with vital information. If any light can be shed on this devastating tragedy, it would be the nicknames she was given — “Hope” or “Little Jane Doe” — and her reburial in Calvary Cemetery on West Florissant Rd. in north St. Louis, Missouri, funded by the nonprofit organization, “Garden of Innocents,” where the plot of land is regularly maintained.
Overall, the list of suspects was unfortunately very short. With a lack of evidence from her murder, finding a person of interest was difficult. The authorities suspected a family member may be involved due to no reports of a child being reported missing, but considering they were unable to determine where she was from, that theory was hard to substantiate. However, there was one suspect that caught the eyes of the investigators.
Vernon Brown was born on October 1, 1953. He had a very troubled upbringing and suffered from excessive physical abuse from his grandfather. He dropped out of high school and in 1973 he was convicted of molesting a twelve-year-old girl and subsequently spent four years in an Indiana prison. After his release, nine-year-old Kimberly Campbell disappeared under mysterious circumstances. She was later found raped and strangled in a vacant residence that was owned by Vernon’s grandmother. Though he was considered the prime suspect in the case, there wasn’t enough evidence to charge him with the crime. In 1985, Vernon relocated to Enright Avenue in St. Louis, Missouri, living under the false name, Thomas Turner, where he was living with his wife and stepchildren.
At approximately 3:00 p.m. on Friday, October 24, 1986, he had just arrived home after picking up his stepchildren from school. Afterward, he sat outside on his front porch watching children walk home after being dropped off from the school bus. That’s when nine-year-old Janet Perkins, a bright young student at Cole Elementary School, was walking to her home a few blocks away, excited for the weekend. Vernon took notice and lured her into his home. His stepchildren saw her come inside and he ordered them into their bedrooms and locked their doors from the outside.
Vernon led Janet down to the basement where he bound her feet and hands by using a wire coat hanger. Moments later, he began to strangle her with a rope. Vernon’s stepchildren could hear her screaming and pleading for her life as her voice echoed through the air vents. Thereafter, he discarded her body and went on about his day as if nothing ever happened.
The following day, the police discovered two trash bags containing Janet’s body in an alley behind his residence. Two days later on Monday, October 27, 1986, the police arrested Brown, and a relative of a neighbor testified on his behalf saying they witnessed Janet enter his home. Throughout questioning him by detectives he confessed to murdering Janet on videotape.
Surprisingly, he admitted to murdering nineteen-year-old Synetta Ford one year beforehand on March 7, 1985. She was found strangled by an electrical cord and stabbed multiple times in an apartment basement where he had worked as a maintenance man. At the time, the authorities arrested him for the murder but he was let go after he gave homicide detectives a false alias.
While he was in prison in Bonne Terre, Tom Carroll — a homicide detective in St. Louis — frequently visited and questioned him about other possible murders he may have committed, particularly about the young Jane Doe found in 1983. Brown never confessed to her or anyone else’s murder. However, detectives believe he could be involved with at least twenty unsolved homicide cases but they don’t have enough tangible evidence to conclusively prove their stance.
On Wednesday, May 18, 2005, at 2:35 a.m. fifty-one-year old Vernon Brown was executed by lethal injection. His last words were, “You’ll see me again. To all my friends, don’t think of me as being gone, but there with you. And to Jazz, who has my heart and love. Peace, love. Vernon Brown.” If he participated in any other murders, he took those secrets to his grave.
Jane Doe’s case has never been solved and is one that haunts the original and current investigators, but as long as her case stays in the light, as her nickname given by the police suggests, there will always be “Hope.”