news

'Lavender Doe' was a forgotten murder victim. Then internet sleuths found her real identity.

For more than 12 years, a girl lay buried in a Texas cemetery without anyone knowing who she was. Her gravestone read “Jane Doe”. The media called her “Lavender Doe”, because of the pale purple shirt she’d been wearing when she died. But recently, a group of amateur sleuths working together online finally found out her name.

Two men found the girl’s burning body in a wooded area near Longview, Texas, in the early hours of October 29, 2006. She’d had petrol poured on her and had been set alight just a few minutes earlier.

Local police were able to work out a few things about her. She was aged somewhere between 17 and 25, and was Caucasian, with strawberry blonde hair and perfect teeth. She’d been wearing a pale purple shirt and jeans, and had $40 in her pocket. She’d also had sex not long before she died, judging by the semen found inside her.

WATCH: Top 5 True Crime Documentaries. Post continues below.

Video by Mamamia

But oddly, no one came forward to claim the girl as a family member or friend. She didn’t match with any missing persons report. Someone in the online true-crime forum Websleuths nicknamed her Lavender Doe, and that nickname stuck.

Police matched the semen found inside the girl to a local man called Joseph Wayne Burnette. He admitted picking up a girl for sex, but that was all he admitted.

In December 2006, the unidentified girl was buried in the local cemetery. Locals put flowers on her grave.

The police didn’t stop trying to find out who she was. They tried DNA matching, without success. Seven years after she was buried, they exhumed her body to use new 3D technology to come up with an image of her face. Still no one came forward to claim her.

Then, in July last year, another body was found in a wooded area near Longview. This time, the victim could be identified. She was Felisha Pearson. Pearson’s mother had reported her missing, and had told police she believed that the last person she was seen with was Joseph Wayne Burnette.

Police arrested Burnette, a sex offender who’d been in prison from 2007 to 2017. They say he gave a “full confession” to the murder of Pearson, and then a “full confession” to the murder of Lavender Doe 12 years earlier.

“On the day of the murder, we believe that Lavender Doe was possibly at the Walmart Supercenter on Fourth Street in Longview,” Gregg County Sheriff Maxey Cerliano told the Longview News-Journal. “She was possibly walking the parking lot by the lawn and garden area and may have been soliciting customers as they entered and exited the store trying to sell the items from a brochure.

“The Gregg County Sheriff’s Office is still committed to identifying Lavender Doe.”

LISTEN: The latest episode of True Crime Conversations, with Jessie Stephens. Post continues below.

Meanwhile, people had been following the case online for years. In 2017, it had grabbed the attention of Kevin Lord, a former computer programmer studying to become a private investigator. Lord had recommended the case to the DNA Doe Project. This is an online volunteer project which aims to solve cold cases using genetic genealogy.

ADVERTISEMENT

In August last year, DNA Doe crowdfunded $US1,400 to analyse Lavender Doe’s DNA. Using the database GEDmatch, they found third cousins and fourth cousins, with Czech ancestry. Eventually, by using family records, they found a middle-aged woman in Texas, living about 50km from where Lavender Doe’s body was found, who seemed certain to be her first cousin once removed.

The only problem was, the woman wasn’t aware of a missing person in her family.

The volunteers tracked down cousins of the woman. There was one she didn’t know had existed – a woman called Robin, who’d died, aged 50, in September 2006. Online police records and newspaper articles revealed a bit about her.

“We saw that she was not stable, had a lot of alcohol-related arrests, had a bunch of different husbands,” Lord told The Atlantic.

Lord found that Robin had once lived with a man called Johnny Dodd. Dodd had a daughter, whose social security number was no longer active. Through MySpace, Lord was able to find a profile of Dodd’s daughter. She had strawberry blonde hair and perfect teeth.

DNA testing confirmed her identity. Lavender Doe’s name was Dana Lynn Dodd.

The volunteers had a strange mix of emotions – excitement that they’d cracked the case, but also sadness, because a family was finding out that one of their members was dead.

“You want to have a party, jumping up and down,” volunteer Missy Koski told The Atlantic. “And, ‘Oh, wait, we can’t have that kind of attitude.’”

Dana’s father was homeless and also had a lot of alcohol-related arrests to his name. Both parents had abandoned Dana when she was young. She’d bounced around different homes, and then gone to Florida to live with her older half-sister, Amanda Gadd, who was already a mother herself.

Gadd told the Longview News-Journal that at first, Dana loved being part of the family.

“We always sat down at the dinner table, and she loved that we always asked, ‘How was your day?’ She looked forward to that, and she told me that she looked forward to that time as family.”

But in her mid-teens, Dana became rebellious. She started taking drugs and got into trouble with the police. In 2000, she skipped town with a boyfriend. Three years later, family members started filing missing person reports.

At the time Dana died, in 2006, she had just turned 21.

In September this year, on what would have been Dana’s 34th birthday, her half-sister Gadd, her half-brother John Dodd and their families travelled to Longview, Texas, to visit her grave. They decided to leave her buried where she was.

“For us to know that somebody took the time out of their day to come and care for her, put flowers on her grave and say, ‘Hey, we don’t know who you are but we care for you,’ that was our definitive decision of why Dana needed to be here,” Gadd said in the Longview News-Journal. “She is part of Longview’s family, and she is part of so many people in this town and in Texas that we decided this is where she belongs.

“We can come here and visit her. We didn’t want to take her away from y’all.”

Burnette has pleaded not guilty to the two murders. Dana’s half-siblings are planning to return to Texas for Burnette’s trial.

00:00 / ???