Inside the search to identify Deer Island girl
It had been 41 days since the little girl’s body was discovered on a Deer Island beach, inside a black garbage bag, clothed in polka-dot leggings and a zebra-striped blanket. For 41 days, the State Police investigators assigned to the case had been beating their heads to find something — anything — that could give them even a faint idea of who the girl dubbed Baby Doe was, or where to look to uncover the mystery of her death.
There was so little to go on. Exhaustive searches of the island the day she was found turned up nothing. The autopsy had given them little more, not even a cause of death. She had no fingerprints, the tides had so damaged the skin of her hands. There were no toxins in her blood. A tip line they set up was bringing in dozens of calls every day. One by one, they painstakingly followed up each. None had yielded answers.
But now, at last, homicide detective Trooper Daniel Herman had something he hoped would narrow the sprawling investigation that had sent investigators scrambling to track down leads from Peru to India to the forests of Brazil:
Sticky and hardy, the pollen that had floated from the flora surrounding Baby Doe in life had clung to her in death, coating her blanket, leggings, and hair. Detectives already suspected that the child had died locally, but where she had lived had remained a mystery.
On that 41st day, the results of the pollen analysis came back. Baby Doe had played among the pines and oaks of New England; she was dusted with traces of privet hedges and cedar-of-Lebanon, which are not native but are often planted in the suburbs. The soot mixed in with the pollen told investigators her surroundings were urban. Somewhere near Boston, they concluded.
A local girl.
A place to start.
Little evidence to examine
From the moment Herman had first crouched on the rocky beach and peered inside the trash bag crumpled at the high-tide line, the evidence before him was incongruous.
The little girl appeared to be between 3 and 5 years old, with long brown hair. Whoever put her in the bag had first wrapped her in her blanket. There were no marks on her body: no signs of trauma or abuse.
Except that she was dead.
It was June 25. The sun shone overhead. Two doctors from the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner were en route, and the beach swarmed with police, firefighters, emergency workers, and crime scene services technicians taking pictures and putting down evidence markers.
Herman stood up and surveyed the beach: a secluded area, hidden behind an embankment and a stand of low, scrubby trees. Did she wash up, or was she placed here? he wondered. The outcropping had an almost ceremonial feel.
“Is there somebody else nearby?” Herman thought. “A dead mother?”
But the cadaver dog found nothing. Officials held their first press conference that afternoon, pleading for help from the public. By 2:30 a.m., the beach was clear: investigators had twice stood shoulder to shoulder and walked its length, combing every inch for evidence, and found no clues. Herman and his sergeant stood together at the shoreline.
Their only evidence was whatever the person who had dumped the child had left in the bag. The task ahead was nearly impossible, but they were determined.
At their feet, the tide was coming in.
Theories on a rare case
It is rare, experts say, for a child to turn up dead and remain unidentified. According to FBI statistics, about 870 bodies believed to be of a person under 18 remain unidentified across the country. Of those, only approximately 88 are believed to be children between the ages of 2 and 10.
“Child homicides happen all the time. We understand that,” said Carol Schweitzer, a National Center for Missing & Exploited Children senior forensic case specialist. “But the chances that a child is recovered deceased, and investigators can’t identify them in a short period of time? . . . I can count them on one hand in one year.”
Among the most high-profile of these cases: Baby Hope, found dead, emaciated, and sexually abused in a cooler beneath a tree by a parkway in Manhattan in 1991. The only clue, according to a New York Times article from the period: A family had seen a man and woman carrying a cooler two weeks before the body was found.
The trail went cold for 22 years, until, in 2013, police got the tip that broke the case and gave Baby Hope back her name: A woman reported a conversation in a laundromat with another woman who said her sister had been killed.
The child was Anjelica Castillo, age 4, and she had allegedly been assaulted and murdered by her cousin. Much of the Castillo family was undocumented, and no one ever reported her missing, the Times reported.
Investigators in the Baby Doe case have tried to imagine what could have happened in the life of their little girl, that she wound up alone at the mercy of the tide, with no family to speak for her. They believed the girl had been dead for just a couple of days when she was found.
Maybe, they have theorized, her family was undocumented. That could explain why, even if she died of natural causes, no one has come forward to identify her. Or perhaps she died accidentally, and her parents have stayed silent for fear of prosecution.
“How do you have a girl who is well cared for disappear and no one’s missing her?” said Assistant District Attorney David Deakin, chief of the Family Protection and Sexual Assault Bureau for Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley. “Maybe there are people missing her, but they’re afraid to come forward.”
But there is also a third possibility that investigators have not ruled out: that Baby Doe was murdered.
Forensic efforts across agencies
Baby Doe was Herman’s case, but he wasn’t working alone. All 12 State Police homicide and narcotics detectives who worked with him in the Chelsea office of Suffolk County State Police detectives, as well as three Winthrop Police detectives, assembled to join him chasing leads.
Forensic analysts at the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children started poring over records of missing children, assembling a file of vanished girls from across the country. The Coast Guard calculated “reverse drifts,” charting how the currents might have carried a body. The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner and the State Police laboratories expedited every forensic test. Winthrop, East Boston, Chelsea, Quincy, Revere, and other local police departments put officers on the streets to help canvass, search for video evidence, and track down children who tipsters worried could be Baby Doe.
Within days of the discovery of her body, one wall of the Chelsea office began to fill with images of smiling little girls with brown hair and brown eyes whom the investigators have checked on and ruled out. In the pictures, they hold up dated signs or current newspapers as proof of life. In one image, a girl in a tutu shows off the bicycle she got for her birthday; in another, a grinning child raises a daisy to the camera’s lens.
Above the pictures of those living children, detectives hung a composite image a forensic artist had created of Baby Doe: big brown eyes, pierced ears, chubby cheeks, a slight smile.
Herman stuck another copy to the dashboard of his car.
Frantic parents, their children taken by state child protective services, have called detectives weeping and begging: Is this my baby? Please, tell me this isn’t my child.
One by one, investigators ruled them out and added them to the wall.
The team worked with urgency. A terrible question loomed. What if Baby Doe had brothers or sisters? What if there were other children in danger?
A flood of dead-end leads
For every tip detectives tracked down, scores of new ones came in. Herman, an intense 37-year-old former Army staff sergeant with a habit of pacing while on the phone, read them all, triaging them for plausibility and dispatching detectives and police officers to track them down.
A week after Baby Doe was found, a man called in with a tip that he had seen a woman driving a gold SUV stop atop the Tobin Bridge and toss a black plastic trash bag into the water in the days before June 25.
“There’s always a hope you come out of a lead with an answer,” said a State Police investigator on the case whose identity was withheld at the request of the department.
The investigator started by interviewing the witness and a friend of his, to make sure he had seen what he said he did. Then, the investigator drove him to the top of the Tobin Bridge and reenacted the scene, pulling over and timing how long it would take to get out of a car, walk to the ledge, and throw a bag over the side. The investigator pulled video surveillance, but it did not cover the spot where the woman stopped. So the investigator pulled all the license plates of the cars that passed through the tolls after the witness’s car, focusing on the time period suggested by the reenactment, and finally found the gold SUV.
It belonged to a man who said his mother drove it, he said. The investigator tracked down the mother and interviewed her on the phone and again in person. The woman confessed to throwing a garbage bag from the SUV. It had been full of rotting fruit. That was the way it went, time after time. Painstaking investigation, and then nothing. This one had taken a week.
“Imagine,” the investigator said. “You have a lead about a child in a trash bag, and it turns out to be fruit.”
The investigator spent another week combing through days of security footage at a Target where a woman said she saw a little girl wearing Baby Doe’s polka-dotted pants. The investigator walked the aisles and studied the tipster in person and in the video footage, but no flash of the child appeared.
Other detectives threw themselves into running down other tips. A boat seen in a Winthrop marina around the time Baby Doe was found; a zebra-striped blanket donated as a Christmas present last year at St. John the Evangelist Church in Winthrop; a mother who stayed briefly with a woman in Revere, leaving behind a bag of children’s toys and toiletries.
The Winthrop detectives spent weeks knocking on doors in the neighborhood surrounding the Norman F. Daw Playground, armed with a picture of Baby Doe and a description from a witness of a woman in a burka pushing a similar-looking child.
Nothing panned out. And then, more than a month into the investigation, the detectives caught what they thought could be a break: Baby Doe appeared to have a particular kind of sealant on her teeth.
It was a long shot, but it might be a way to find her identity.
Baby teeth provide a clue
Herman walked into a Revere dentist’s office July 31, carrying a list of more than 50 providers who had applied sealant to the teeth of hundreds of children in Suffolk County. He expected the roster to grow.
For two years, until late 2013, MassHealth covered sealants for baby teeth in Massachusetts, an expensive procedure that many parents skip if they are paying out of pocket. Detectives pulled records of MassHealth reimbursements for the procedure, and set to calling each dentist who had made a claim, asking them to search their records for young girls.
Dentist Leo P. Corey had two patients who fit the criteria. One had a chipped front tooth, which ruled her out: Corey pronounced Baby Doe’s teeth “disgustingly normal” after looking at pictures on Herman’s cellphone. Corey made photocopies of the other file, with its careful chart of the little girl’s mouth.
Every new name presented detectives with a contradiction: hope that the little girl attached to it was still alive, and hope that she was their Baby Doe.
This was a good lead. But there had been lots of good leads — girls who looked just like Baby Doe, living in homes with months’ worth of mail piled up outside, or with parents who refused to answer the door. Herman had stood on many a front porch, Miranda forms ready, only to come face to face with a child who was very much alive.
Corey handed the paperwork to the detective.
“Someone has to know something,” the dentist said.
Turning to advanced science
While investigators searched for Baby Doe’s dental records, they were also turning to advanced forensic techniques for answers.
Her DNA had already been compared, without a match, with databases of missing children. So they sent a sample to the University of North Texas Health Science Center, for scientists to examine her mitochondrial DNA, which could help identify her immediate relatives.
They sent a single tooth and 200 strands of hair to a lab in Salt Lake City, Utah, called IsoForensics Inc. The oxygen and hydrogen isotopes in her tissue could tell researchers where her drinking water came from, and the strontium isotopes could give them clues about the origins of what she ate and bathed in, said a research scientist at the lab, Brett Tipple. The hair is a historical record of those isotopes, he said, that will show analysts whether and where she moved.
And detectives waited on the pollen test.
Still hunting for justice
Bad news came five days after Herman’s visit to Corey’s office. The dental sealant they had hoped could lead them straight to the girl’s identity was never there. It was a false positive, and another dead end.
The detectives were working nights and weekends. Herman’s phone buzzed incessantly with pictures the other investigators sent of girls ruled out by well-being checks; sometimes, he woke up in the middle of the night thinking about Baby Doe. He could not help but see echoes of her face in little girls he passed on the street. He and other detectives returned to the scene again and again, studying the tide, and hoping that the person who dumped the body might come back.
Someone knows what happened, he and other investigators thought. They did not understand how the child’s family could remain silent.
“I think about her alone on the rocks and I wonder if she knew what was happening in those final moments. What was going through that little head?” said Conley, the Suffolk district attorney. “It just breaks my heart, and it lights a fire under us to keep going.”
He pleaded for her caregiver to come forward.
“It’s time for that person to do the right thing now and come clean about who she is and how she died,” Conley said. “Give her back her identity. Give her back her name.”
Eventually, officials will have to confront the question of whether to bury Baby Doe.
For now, her body is zipped into a black bag on a shelf inside an industrial walk-in cooler at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner on Albany Street in Boston. She is surrounded by other bodies. She is identified by a bar code.
Boston tips take on importance
There was no time to dwell on the sealant. Test results had arrived from a Houston lab that had analyzed the pollen in a sample of the girl’s hair, as well as her blanket and clothes. The lab had given them reams of data on the presence of 39 types of pollen. Investigators gave the data to scientists at Harvard and Texas A&M and concluded that the combination the lab found, and the proportion of pollens, probably pointed to the Boston area. Scientists differ on how precisely such tests can pinpoint locations, but one of the scientists who performed the analysis at the Houston lab, Andrew Laurence, said it’s “usually pretty reliable.”
For the investigators on the case, reported sightings locally now took on new weight.
On Thursday, State Police Sergeant Scott Holland, who that first night had stood on the beach with Herman, pulled up to the curb at the Eagle Hill Laundromat in East Boston, where employee Sal Golisano, 62, swore he had seen Baby Doe.
“I said, ‘You know, I got to say something. I’ve seen this girl. I seen her with her mother,’ ” Golisano said.
The mother, Golisano said, was heavyset, with a light complexion and dirty blonde hair. Five feet 8 inches, he thought, maybe shorter. She pushed a toddler with brown hair and eyes in a stroller at another laundromat.
“I feel free now,” he said. “My conscience is clear.”
But Golisano had not seen the child since November. It was an unlikely lead, though Holland would comb through the roster of reported sightings, looking for others in the neighborhood.
He climbed back into his truck and headed for the other laundromat.
The detective was resolute as he assessed his newest bit of information.
“More hay in the haystack.”
Anyone with information can text the keyword GIRL and your tip to 67283, or call 617-369-5655. The text line is anonymous and phone callers can remain anonymous if they choose.