A name for Cali
How a bunch of obsessives on the Internet kept a girl alive…even though she’s been dead for 36 years
When I researched and wrote THE SKELETON CREW: How Amateur Sleuths Are Solving America’s Coldest Cases, about unidentified human remains and the web sleuths who become obsessed with them, hers was one of the apocryphal cases: Caledonia Jane Doe, a teen found shot to death in a cornfield in upstate New York in 1979.
On web sites and in chat rooms, they called her Cali. An artist’s rendering showed a heartbreakingly sweet-faced girl with light, wavy hair. One of the most mournful clues was a key chain snapped on a belt loop on the girl’s tan corduroy pants. One half was a tiny key; the other a silver heart with a key-shaped cutout. The heart charm said, “He who holds the key can open my heart.”
A Canadian named Troy More started a Yahoo! cold cases group—back when Yahoo! had barely launched—because of her. A Rochester woman worked tirelessly to keep the case alive. A Facebook page dedicated to Cali has more than 1,500 “likes,” and she is profiled on dozens of sites dedicated to the missing and unidentified, including Websleuths.com, which has more than 70,000 registered members who compare notes on everything from celebrity murders to cold cases. Websleuths user Carl Koppelman, a certified public accountant and artist in El Segundo, Calif., sketched facial reconstructions of Cali based on autopsy photos. In the fall, when he saw a photograph of a missing Florida teen pop up on the Internet, he said he immediately knew it was her.
In mid-January, DNA testing confirmed that Caledonia Jane Doe is Atlanta native Tammy Jo Alexander, a former student at Hernando High School in Brooksville, Florida, who was last seen Nov. 3, 1979, the day after her 16th birthday.
“I was happy for Tammy Jo’s family (but) I was sad that it took way too long,” said Rocky Wells, a longtime volunteer for The Doe Network, a virtual organization for the missing and unidentified. The Doe Network morphed into its present-day existence around 1999. Around that time Cali became 1UFNY, the first Jane Doe posted on the site. Rocky told me the board’s administrators had looked at least 84 possible matches for Cali over the years.
Todd Matthews, a Tennessee man who spent 10 years on a puzzling Kentucky case involving a young woman found, like Cali, dead by the side of a road, was one of the first Doe Network users. Todd now works for the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs, a national centralized repository and resource center for missing persons and unidentified remains. NamUs provided the DNA analysis that confirmed the ID.
“Finding Tammy listed as a new case on NamUs has certainly created a flurry of activity among our group,” wrote a member of the Facebook group, Never Forget Me, dedicated to the missing and unidentified. “Have we finally solved a case that has pulled at our heartstrings for so many years? Has she already been found, and waiting to go home? Waiting for someone to give her back her name?”
John York, now retired as sheriff of Livingston County, New York, was one of the first to arrive at the grisly scene in the cornfield. He’s been interviewed many times over the years, and for a BBC radio documentary in 2007, he related, “We’re upstate, about 300 miles north of New York City, 70 miles east of Buffalo and Niagara Falls. Very unfortunate on this particular case that we are talking about on November 9th of 1979, we had a young girl who was shot once over the right eye, dragged into a cornfield, shot through the back, stripped of identification and 27 years later, we are still trying to who this child is…she is somebody’s child and somebody has a right to know what happened to her. And she has the right to the justice of identifying her killers.”
Last August, Tammy Jo’s classmate and friend, Laurel Nowell, called the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office. She “just felt like seeking out” her long-lost friend, she said. The information, and the photo Koppelman spotted, were entered into NamUs, and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children immediately started an investigation. Tammy Jo’s family provided a DNA sample.
It seemed to Laurel that Tammy Jo had never been reported missing; the family says that in fact her disappearance had been reported, and they always hoped to learn what had become of her. “We have always cared,” Tammy Jo’s younger half-sister, Pamela Dyson, told a Rochester, NY, TV reporter. “We love her and we have missed her. We are truly grateful that after 35 years that there has been closure.”
Todd says it’s not unusual for a missing person report to vanish or end up in a filing cabinet. “You can’t take for granted the file was digitized and shared outside of the local reporting area,” he said.
Former sheriff York was one of many who visited Cali’s anonymous grave each year at Green Mount Cemetery in Dansville, NY, and left flowers. “Lest we forget,” is inscribed on the plain stone.
Deborah Halber is the author of THE SKELETON CREW: How Amateur Sleuths Are Solving America’s Coldest Cases, released in July 2014 by Simon & Schuster