Missing “Jane Doe” Since Late 1970s Now Identified as Ottumwa Teenager

Nearly half a century after her remains were discovered, the identity of the young woman previously known as “Lincoln County Jane Doe” has finally been unveiled. Through a multi-agency partnership leveraging the latest forensic DNA technologies, her name and origins have been determined, bringing long-awaited answers in a case that had gone cold for over four decades.

In March 1978, human remains were discovered in the Mississippi River near Elsberry, Missouri. Lincoln County Missouri authorities retrieved the body and transported it to the St. Louis County Medical Examiner’s Office. An autopsy revealed the victim to be a white female who was believed to be between the ages of 30-40. The cause of death was identified as drowning. No signs of trauma were present, and the manor of death was classified as ‘undetermined’. Based on the level of decomposition, it was estimated that she had died approximately four months prior to discovery.

Few clues were available to identify the victim at that time. She was wearing a cat’s eye ring and had a tattoo that appeared to say “Dee” on her left forearm. Despite extensive efforts by investigators at the time, the woman’s identity could not be established. She was laid to rest in the Troy Missouri City Cemetery, memorialized by a headstone marking her grave as ‘Lincoln County Jane Doe’. Details of the case were entered into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) in 2009 as UP5295.

The pivotal breakthrough in the case came in October 2023, when the remains were exhumed through a collaborative effort involving the Lincoln County Coroner’s Office, local and regional partners, and the Southeast Missouri State University (SEMO) Anthropology faculty and students. SEMO’s osteological and dental analysis revealed that the victim was likely a teenager at the time of her death – significantly younger than the initial estimate between 30-40 years old from the 1978 autopsy report.

SEMO Anthropology professor Jennifer Bengtson and her undergraduate students applied chemical analyses to the poorly preserved remains. They identified and selected the most promising samples to submit to Othram for DNA extraction. Despite the challenging condition of the evidence, Othram’s Genome Sequencing aided in the successful extraction of DNA. A comprehensive genealogical profile was built and Othram’s genealogy team was able to generate new leads.

With this new information, the Lincoln County Coroner’s Office was able to make contact with an individual who stated they had a close family member matching the description of Jane Doe who had mysteriously disappeared from Ottumwa, Iowa in late 1977.

Upon having this preliminary information suggesting a potential match; the Lincoln County Coroner’s Office contacted the Wapello County Iowa Sheriff’s Office. Wapello County Sheriff’s Office Investigators began looking into the disappearance and worked to obtain a familial DNA reference sample from the potential family member. The Wapello County Sheriff’s Office submitted the DNA sample to Othram and subsequent testing confirmed a match. After 46 years “Lincoln County Jane Doe” was finally reunited with her family when she was identified as 15-year-old Helen Renee Groomes from Ottumwa, Iowa.

On April 1st, Wapello County Sheriff’s Office Investigators traveled to Troy, Missouri and interviewed Helens family, traveled to Helen’s gravesite, examined her autopsy report, and consulted with the Lincoln County Coroner’s Office and SEMO Anthropology Director Dr. Bengston.

The Wapello County Sheriff’s Office is currently trying to find all the missing pieces to this 46 year old puzzle. However very limited information is currently known about her disappearance. Helen and her family lived in Ottumwa, Iowa but frequently traveled to stay with family in Des Moines, Iowa.

The Wapello County Sheriff’s Office would like to speak with anyone that has information related to the disappearance of Helen or who might have been friends with her in 1977. Please contact the Wapello County Sheriff’s Office Investigation’s unit with any information.

Tips can also be submitted anonymously by emailing crimetips@wapellocounty.org

Iowa has approximately 585 Cold Case’s; this case serves as a perfect example of the necessity to follow through and continue them. It’s important to remember that every victim deserves justice and every family needs answers. In Helens case a group of professionals passionate about their work pursued new techniques and modern technology to send Helen home to her family