Sometimes startling news comes at you from deep in your past.
It happened to me a few days ago. I got a call out of the blue from Jeanie Vieira, with the sad answer to the question of whatever happened to a cousin who disappeared more than 40 years ago.
For most of her short life, she was known as Elizabeth Ann Roberts, but she was born Elizabeth Ann Elder in 1959 to my mother’s younger brother, Stanley Elder, and his wife, Mary, Jeanie’s aunt. Lisa, as she liked to be called, was the fourth child following three brothers.
Her parents, a young couple at the time, divorced shortly after her birth and made the difficult decision to put her up for adoption. She was adopted by some non-blood relatives who could not have children, and who joyfully welcomed her into their loving family.
The family moved to Roseburg when Elizabeth was six. There, she grew into a lanky teenager who played flute in the high school band, enjoyed being a big sister, and did what most teens do, which is to test boundaries while becoming an adult. At the age of 17, her parents confronted her about a bag of marijuana they found on the lawn, and a few days later, she ran away from home, never to return.
She called her worried parents a couple of weeks later, to ask if they would send her money. They begged her to come home. She said she’d think about it. The parents sent a check to a bank in Everett, Wash., but she never picked it up.
On Aug. 9, 1977, just 16 days after leaving home, she was walking south on the Bothell-Everett Highway, on the east side of Silver Lake, thumbing for a ride, which unfortunately was not that uncommon at the time. She was picked up by a friendly, 6-foot-5, 20-year-old named David Roth. He drove her to a secluded spot, and when she refused his request for sex, he killed her. A short time later, Roth confided to a friend that he had killed a hitchhiker, and the friend called the police. After investigation and issuing a warrant for his arrest, they apprehended Roth on Jan. 18, 1979, He was convicted of first-degree murder on Nov. 9, 1979.
Police had their murderer, but they didn’t know anything about the victim. She had no ID with her and the bullets had made her unrecognizable. Sadly, the police report that her parents filed immediately after she left home was deleted from the system in error.
The unknown girl was put in an unmarked grave, at Cypress Lawn Memorial Park in Everett, but not forgotten. A cold case unit was later set up, and one detective, Jim Scharf, took a special interest in the case. Not knowing her name, he called her “Precious Jane Doe.”
"This young girl was precious to me because her moral decision from her proper upbringing cost her her life,” Scharf was quoted as saying in a news release from the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Department. “I knew she had to be precious to her family too, so I had to find them. We needed to give her name back to her and return her remains to her family.”
The breakthrough came from strands of hair in a property room of the sheriff’s office, stored for decades alongside clothes, cigarettes, and coins considered evidence in the case. Richard “Ed” Green, an assistant professor of biomolecular engineering at the University of California Santa Cruz, developed a technique for extracting DNA from hair. Eventually, a match was found in online DNA databases from Ancestry.com, 23 And Me, and others. The connection was with a half-brother, researchers were then able to make the connection with her biological family.
Unfortunately, her immediate biological family is not around to hear the news. In the summer of 1970, now 50 years ago, my Uncle Stanley and his second wife, Audrey, along with Stanley and Mary’s three sons — Mike, John, and Dale, were returning from a vacation in eastern Oregon, when my uncle fell asleep. The car went into the Columbia River and all aboard were killed. Anderson Funeral Home had to borrow hearses to transport the family to Pine Grove Cemetery, where they are buried.
Both Elizabeth’s biological and adoptive mothers have also passed away. Even her killer is gone. Roth was released from prison in 2005 after serving a 25-year sentence. He died of cancer on Aug. 9, 2015, the 38th anniversary of the killing.
There are five of us first cousins remaining. When Jeanie Vieira asked if we had any objection to Elizabeth’s remains being interred at Pine Grove in the same plot as her biological father and her brothers, my brother and cousins readily agreed to the request. She’s family, even if we never met. In an odd twist of fate, many of her adoptive family lie in adjacent plots to the Elder family.
As Jim Scharf put it, in a story that appeared in the Everett Herald, “We accomplished our goal of giving this girl her name back. She isn’t going to be a forever unknown person.”
Her entire family is grateful that she is finally known; moreover, that she is finally home.
Rodger Nichols, a long-time Gorge radio and print journalist, lives in The Dalles.