It was 3:27 p.m. on a warm September day in 2010 when veteran LAPD homicide detective Patricia Hauck arrived at a recycling hub on the outskirts of Chinatown. Police had been called to the L.A. Recycling Center after a worker sorting through cans and cardboard sliced open a tangle of plastic bags and found something horrifying.
“Death has a very peculiar smell,” says Hauck, who’s worked homicide for 14 years. “And they opened it up and initially they thought it was an animal.”
Angelenos occasionally dump dead pets in recycling bins. But this was a woman: naked, decomposed and unidentifiable. Wrapped in a sheet and trash bags, she was accompanied only by a metal socket, an inexpensive silver ring and a piece of hominy — or popcorn, according to the coroner’s report — stuck in her hair.
She is called Jane Doe 52, and to the homicide detectives of LAPD’s Central Division, she has become a nearly five-year riddle. Even where she was placed along the 22-mile recycling route the truck may have traveled is unknown. “How the body got here is a complete mystery,” Hauck says.
From a bulletin board high above their desks downtown, a composite sketch of Jane Doe’s face peers across the detectives’ corral. Although she has faded from news coverage, her gaze seems to follow officers back and forth across the room.
“That poster falls down every now and then,” Hauck says with a glint in her eye. “And you know, she is on everyone’s minds.”
But the greatest hope for solving her death has been dashed.
Unknown to LAPD, her skull and the rest of her body were cremated by the L.A. Coroner’s Office within two years of her discovery, a government official confirms to L.A. Weekly.
The news came after police had scoured missing-persons lists, canvassed neighborhoods on the recycling pickup route and sought the public’s help. When they failed to ID her, they convinced the FBI and Department of Justice to use high-tech, 3-D facial imaging on her skull. Homicide detective Brian Putnam says the feds have used the computer program to create vivid likenesses of unidentified dead individuals, manipulating skin tone, hair color, eye color and other nuances.
But unexpectedly, Jane Doe’s skull was no longer in the evidence room.
An LAPD policy dictates how police and the coroner handle and preserve evidence in a murder investigation. If an item such as a body part isn’t “disposed of at the time of the autopsy,” the L.A. County Coroner’s Office is supposed to contact police to see if the part is needed or can be discarded.
That, apparently, did not happen in this case.
Jane Doe 52 was “released” for cremation on May 9, 2011, as permitted under a law allowing disposal of unclaimed human remains after 30 days, chief of coroner investigations Craig Harvey wrote in an email to the Weekly.
The Coroner’s Office didn’t respond to the Weekly’s questions about what happened to her skull. Harvey earlier told the Weekly that items classified as “physical or medical evidence” are destroyed only after checking to see if law enforcement needs them. “If they want the evidence, they must take it into their custody,” Harvey wrote. He explained that there “may or may not be” select bones or body parts of Jane Doe 52’s at the Coroner’s Office.
LAPD has little to work with now. A few fingerprints collected from Jane Doe 52’s decomposed hands didn’t match anything in LAPD’s databases. And in an era of controversies over government snooping, police in California face restricted access to the DMV database, says Putnam, who’s been on the case since nearly the beginning. He can’t just scan her fingerprints into DMV’s system. He first must have an inkling of who she might be — for example, the name of a missing person — and then find that name and compare her DMV prints to Jane Doe 52’s.
She was so drastically decomposed that it’s difficult to determine even her race or ethnicity. It’s known only that she was not black. Her now-destroyed skull could have provided a real chance to create a true likeness of her, and in turn determine her name, investigators say.
“I firmly believe if we identify her, this is an easy case” to solve, Putnam says.
She was discovered wrapped in multiple layers of plastic, and could have been stored, possibly in a fridge or freezer, before being dumped, detectives say. By the time she surfaced at the recycling sorting plant, her insides were “mush,” Putnam says, and her hair was sliding off her head.
“We couldn’t determine her eye color,” he says, although the Coroner's Office ultimately selected brown for its online report.
She probably wasn’t extremely poor. Her fingernails and toenails were well-manicured, her hair was dyed and she recently had had some “high-end” dental work, Hauck says.
Many conclusions in the autopsy report are couched in careful terms. Although her death was ruled a homicide, the cause is “undetermined.” Many of Jane Doe 52’s injuries, such as her broken ribs and pelvic fractures, likely were inflicted after death, by the recycling truck’s compactor.
In fact, the autopsy “revealed no definite evidence of antemortem trauma,” meaning there were no clear-cut signs of injury before death. Detectives say it’s possible she wasn’t murdered. Someone may have panicked when she died naturally, Hauck says. Maybe they decided to capitalize on it somehow — for example, by getting rid of her body and collecting Social Security checks she may have been receiving.
Experts estimate her age between 40 and 70, most likely on the older end. She appeared to be overweight, was missing her gallbladder and spleen and had suffered from atherosclerosis.
She may have been in a hospital or care center, as her body was wrapped in Angelica sheets, linens often used by health care facilities. Investigators canvassed such locations along the recycle route, but the Angelica brand is ubiquitous, Putnam says.
“It’s basically like saying you had white, whatever Target brand, white bedsheets,” he says.
Then there’s the hominy, silver ring and socket from a tool set that were found wrapped up with Jane Doe 52. While investigators aren’t ruling out the significance of these items, they may have been swept up in her wrapping when she was jostled in transit or dumped onto the recycling conveyor belt.
The 22-mile-long recycling truck route winds through diverse L.A. neighborhoods, including Koreatown and Griffith Park. Investigators have flooded the communities with reward fliers. They even tried bloodhounds, in hopes of learning which truck ferried in Jane Doe 52.
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Even if they nail down her original pickup location, “The reality is that when you put your trash out … anybody can come by in the middle of the night and put something in,” Hauck says.
For LAPD, a case is “cold” after one year with no new, active leads, Putnam says. Because LAPD’s Central Division has no dedicated cold-case unit, he pursues this one during his rare free time.
While Jane Doe 52’s ashes will be buried at L.A. County Cemetery, the troubling and baffling case likely will linger on for the detectives.
“This is an elderly person, we don’t know anything about her, we don’t know what kind of person she was,” Hauck says. “But nobody should wind up thrown in the trash. And what a way to just have your life end.”