Identity of woman’s skull still a mystery a decade later

HUDSON, Wis. — After nearly 10 years, the identity of a woman whose severed head was found along a road near Houlton, Wis., remains a mystery, although there have been a series of recent leads, one piggy-backing on another.

Long after the October 2002 incident when the skull was found in a black plastic garbage bag just off of Andersen Scout Road, near Wisconsin Highway 35/64, it remains stored in the evidence room of the St. Croix County Sheriff’s Department in Hudson, waiting for identification.

A Boy Scout made the grisly find while his troop was doing a weekend roadside cleaning project for charity — filling bags similar to the one found containing the head. This was years before the area was reconfigured as part of a highway construction project with more lanes and new larger interchanges. At that time, before the area had grown, it was a quieter and less traveled road — where someone decided to dump a human skull, presumably after a homicide.

At first, when the scout found the tan-colored, bagged head on a steep slope, he thought it might be from a deer, but closer inspection of the facial features ruled that out.

“We had an interesting lead, which led us overseas to Japan, where we worked with the Japanese authorities and the FBI,” said St. Croix County Sheriff John Shilts, about an angle from earlier this year.

“We were put in touch with a family member, and the DNA was not hers. So we’re back to square one,” he added.

That isn’t to say that there weren’t other investigative avenues lately.

“A few weeks back, we had quite a few leads and there were some new angles that we were approached about,” said Brent Standaert, an SCCSO investigator, adding that a couple of leads initially looked promising.

“We got some calls after a (newspaper) article ran, but the leads did not check out,” he said. “Some of them were about an elderly women who was thought to have been traveling from Roseville over to Minong.”

However, the outcome when checking into that state-to-state trek through Stillwater was sadly similar, as family members helped determine that the DNA was not the same.

Leslie Eisenberg, a forensic anthropologist who examined the skull at the request of St. Croix County officials, believes that the woman was Asian or possibly American Indian, over 35 years old, with rather short brown and slightly wavy hair and a high forehead. Investigators say the victim could have looked distinctive compared to people around her.

“Because of widely spaced eyes, a broad nose, and projecting lower jaw devoid of teeth, the person may have been typecast as mentally retarded or been ostracized from society,” Eisenberg’s report says.

The skull had no teeth or dentures, and for that reason her diet would have been limited. Investigators speculated that her jaw had been newly broken, probably around the time she died, although that would not have been the fatal blow.

The victim likely was slain and her body dismembered to make identification more difficult, Shilts said. “That’s one school of thought,” he added. No other body parts were ever found.

The skull was sent to Kentucky for reconstruction a couple of years after it was found, but that did not develop into anything more conclusive about the woman’s characteristics.

However, this forensics work did eventually create some leads.

Standaert took over the case in early 2011 when Dave Hake retired after almost nine years as the lead investigator. Soon after that, a national database called the Doe Network contacted him and described a resemblance between the reconstructed skull and a photo of an Asian immigrant, Nori Jenkins, who had disappeared from a Kansas mental health facility in 1986 and hadn’t been heard from after that.

“I got a call from a third-party advocacy group, I think you could call them that, who thought they had a lead,” Standaert said.

Jenkins had married soldier Harold Jenkins of Topeka, Kan., in Japan in 1959 and later became a U.S. citizen. In 1964, while her husband was working, she strangled her two toddlers to death.

Nori Jenkins was found not guilty by reason of insanity. She walked away from Tokepa State Hospital 16 years before the finding of the skull that at one point was thought to be hers.

Standaert noted the similarities between the reconstruction and Jenkins’ photograph, and other parallels between the two women, especially when their images were viewed side-to-side.

“When I start looking, one of the first things I do is look at the teeth,” Standaert said. A key factor is if they have all of them in place, or if some are missing, how many are there and how long have they been that way. “This is one way I could tell if it’s our person,” he said.

However, since there was no DNA readily obtainable from Jenkins to compare to the skull, Standaert used resources such as the FBI, the international police organization Interpol, and lastly the Japanese police. Through them he was able to locate Jenkins’ sister and ask to get a DNA sample to make a comparison.

Japan’s national police notified Standaert this spring that DNA from the sister was not a match. He was left wondering why the head was dumped in the small-town area it was, and how a skull could show up without its owner being called in as a missing person — which is the likely scenario, since the United States has databases with hundreds if not thousands of missing persons who are reported, and even more sets of unidentified remains.

Shilts asks that anyone with information, such as someone’s disappearance or resemblence to the reconstructed photo, contact the sheriff’s department at 715-381-4320.

Even if the information is not thought to be that striking, or might even be a rumor or story that was heard, investigators emphasize that they still want to hear from people.

Joe Winter is a freelance writer for the Stillwater Gazette